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One of the nativity scenes at Palisades Park on display last Christmas. City Council’s unanimous vote on Tuesday night put an end to the nearly 60-year tradition.
Photo by Leslie Miranda
One of the nativity scenes at Palisades Park on display last Christmas. City Council’s unanimous vote on Tuesday night put an end to the nearly 60-year tradition.

News, City Council, Santa Monica

Nativity Scenes At Palisades Park Banned

Posted Jun. 15, 2012, 1:30 am

Parimal M. Rohit / Staff Writer

The Santa Monica City Council unanimously voted Tuesday night to prohibit erected structures to be on display at Palisades Park. Accordingly, a Christmas tradition that has existed in Santa Monica decades before many current residents moved into town will no longer be allowed to take place.

Specifically, the council’s action prohibited the display of nativity scenes at Palisades Park, a tradition that has been allowed by City Hall for nearly 60 years.

Until last year, displays depicting the birth of Jesus Christ were allowed at Palisades Park as part of an exception to the general citywide rule prohibiting the erection of structures in public parks.

For decades, City Hall allowed religious institutions to use Palisades Park to erect unattended displays during the Christmas season. Through 2010, the City Hall exception was utilized by groups or churches wishing to celebrate the birth of Christ as told in the gospels of Luke and Matthew and presented the popular manger scene in diorama form.

Three-dimensional statutes of a baby Jesus surrounded by Joseph, Mary, and various angels and shepherds attracted many onlookers to a popular stretch of Ocean Boulevard.

Other displays existed as well, promoting the Jewish holiday of Hanukkah, for example. There were also atheist and solstice displays.

However, as Christmas 2011 approached, the number of groups requesting use of Palisades Park under the City Hall exception far exceeded the space available. Local officials resorted to a lottery system to determine who would be entitled to set up a display.

The lottery was employed “in order to allocate display opportunities in an unbiased manner.”

“This was done to effectuate First Amendment requirements of neutrality and thereby avoid legal risks,” staff said.

City Hall’s initial decision sparked a controversy, particularly because the groups displaying nativity scenes at Palisades Park now had stiff competition for space. Due to the lottery system, “most spaces being allocated (were) to displays that opposed religion,” staff added.

The issue almost immediately becoming tense with differing groups hoping to put up a winter display of some sort during the Christmas season, City Hall began to contemplate whether to eliminate its exception altogether and extend the strict prohibition against private displays in public spaces within Santa Monica at Palisades Park.

“Some argued that the ‘traditional’ Nativity scenes, which had been in the park for sixty years, must somehow be preserved,” staff said. “Others favored the lottery system for allocating spaces but advocated standards for displays that would ensure aesthetic merit. Some opposed all private displays on public space. Many felt that the juxtaposition of religious and anti-religious displays was a distressing symbol of conflict inconsistent with values of peace and harmony that many associate with the holiday season.”

On Tuesday, council members finally concluded the six-month consideration of the issue with its unanimous vote to indeed eliminate the exception and prohibit a private display at a public park.

After the ordinance’s second read on June 26, churches, synagogues, mosques, temples, or any other religious or non-religious entity will not be allowed to erect a winter display of any kind at Palisades Park.

Of course, the proposed ordinance did not easily come to a vote. There was testimony on both sides of the issue making compelling arguments as to whether or not council members should eliminate the longstanding exception.

Even more, irrespective of the decision council members would reach on the ordinance, someone could argue the final vote violated his or her First Amendment rights. On one side, prohibiting the nativity scenes in a public park was construed as a violation of the First Amendment religious freedoms. On the other side, allowing the status quo to remain with groups being allowed to erect religiously themed displays was also considered a violation of one’s First Amendment right to be free from religious themed speech.

Many believed the nativity scenes and other religious displays promoted community, opponents of the public display ban argued. But most importantly, the ordinance’s opponents viewed the ban as an infringement upon religious freedom and a form of fear.

“Being an American gives me the right as an individual apart from any religious preferences to live in a community of my choice with other people. It, however, doesn’t give me the right to persecute anyone else’s choices for themselves, which, to me, means despite the fact that I’m not Jewish, I don’t have the right to tell anyone they can’t display a Menorah,” Santa Monica resident Patrick Potter said.

“We shouldn’t let personal insecurities motivate hate-like behavior.”

Conversely, those supporting the elimination of the exception say too many groups are now competing for space at Palisades Park, which could lead to trouble. Even more, employing a lottery system each year would be expensive and keep the door open for unhappy groups and expose the city to potential lawsuits.

“The primary role of government is to protect religious freedom … (and) freedom from religion,” Manhattan Beach resident and Santa Monica patron Aliyah Levin said. “The city’s placement of the nativity scenes has served as an endorsement of private religious expression. Religion is a personal conscious, not civic display.”

Council member Terry O’Day, who said he enjoyed the nativity scenes, worried a negative competition would arise if a lottery system were to remain in place.

“I feel like we are setting up a ring for a competition – one that is getting nasty, and that is certainly not in the Christmas spirit,” he said. “There are other ways to celebrate faith or non-faith.”

Then there was the legal argument presented by City Attorney Marsha Jones Moutrie. In her statement to council members, Moutrie said the city had the right to eliminate the Palisades Park exception, adding that religious groups still had a means to express their views. For example, winter displays could still be erected if they were attended at all times. Also, churches could pass out leaflets.

“The city can certainly, legally, ban all unattended private displays in the public parks. We believe there are several cases that support that, and we do not believe there are any to the contrary,” Moutrie said.

She added that nativity scenes could still be displayed under the new ordinance, such as part of a community event or at public parks “so long as they were attended.” Nativity scenes may also be displayed on public property.

The debate over nativity scenes and winter displays arose last year when there was a sudden increase in groups seeking out one of the 21 spaces available for winter displays at Palisades Park. Up until last year, there was little to no competition for the 21 spaces, which were mostly occupied by a coalition of 14 groups who erected the nativity scenes at Palisades Park.

According to Community and Cultural Services Director Karen Ginsberg, City Hall prior to 2011 only received two to four applications for the 21 display spaces at Palisades Park.

However, last year’s increase in demand for the spaces forced City Hall to resort to a lottery system in an attempt to determine, as unbiased as possible, which groups would be entitled to one of the 21 spots. Many of those spots went to atheist groups, much to the chagrin of the religious coalition.

Ginsberg added the lottery system required staff to put in hundreds of hours to facilitate.

The first nativity scene in a public setting in Santa Monica was in 1953.

Post a comment


Jun. 15, 2012, 3:07:31 am

Terri de la Pena said...

In 1953, I was 6 years old, and my parents were responsible for setting up the Nativity scene sponsored by St. Anne's Church. Childhood memories abound of helping them prepare the scene for display. Perhaps newcomers do not realize that before statehood California was settled by Spanish soldiers and settlers accompanied by Franciscan missionaries. Why else would so many cities bear the names of Catholic saints? Right here in SM Canyon, my great great grandparents' ranch was named Rancho Boca de Santa Monica. Religious traditions loom large in our extended family and I feel personally afronted by the ban on the Nativity Scenes which my Uncle Ysidro Reyes helped establish. Our family has deep ties to this region and I find it very sad that newcomers feel obliged to obliterate what we consider tradition.

Jun. 15, 2012, 4:54:39 am

Diane said...

As Ms. de la Pena said, there was a rich history here before it was even part of the United States. Santa Monica means Saint Monica, Los Angeles means the Angels, Shall we change these historic names as well lest they offend a satanist's delicate sensibilities?

Jun. 15, 2012, 7:27:39 am

Hanna Hartnell said...

I'm disgusted with all of you. What the heck has happened to this city, this country? I can't say any more than that. Are you not ashamed of yourselves for what you're doing? Where is your pride and backbone? Do you even realize what country you're living in? Pathetic.

Jun. 15, 2012, 7:31:59 am

Joey said...

It is very sad when a current tide of political correctness disproportionately represents a nation that is by and large Judeo Christian as a whole, based on unbiased Gallop Polls. We cannot erase and rewrite history, ethics, tradition, morality, et al, to serve he interests of the few who, and constantly succumb to all who merely scream the loudest.

Jun. 15, 2012, 8:26:44 am

Paul H. said...

Are we completly loosing our marbles, our sences???? I AM NOT a religious person however, ENOUGH IS ENOUGH with this politically corectness. I loved the fact that the Nativity scene was there every year, it represented exactly what it suposed to represent CHRISTMAS! Anyone does not want to look it at it, turn your head EAST. (Fast forward a few years) The "Fuzlim" brotherhood want to erect a whatsyoumakcallit and the the city council will allow it, fearing either retaliation or offending the. Come on now! SAD - SAD - SAD

Jun. 15, 2012, 11:01:08 am

Michelle said...

Congratulations, Athiests... you win. Bah Humbug to all.

Jun. 15, 2012, 2:32:12 pm

Nan Jefferies said...

I echo many of the comments here. The Santa Monica City Council’s choice was a very poor one—and it was clearly a choice and not a reasoned determination, as there were more than sufficient reasonable arguments to allow the Christian-themed displays to remain. Allowing a religious display on public property does not equate to government endorsement. This reeks of bullies taking over the school yard—and the principal let’s them have their way. I’m not even a church-goer, but I find this decision highly offensive. I can’t even imagine how incensed Christians who put in the time and effort to keep this tradition alive are—and they should be. But, now that Baby Jesus has been kicked out, I fully expect the City of Santa Monica to be even-handed in their handling of any religious-themed displays on public property. So I fully expect that the menorah prominently displayed at the Third Street Promenade, a very public space, will not be on display this Chanukah.

Jun. 16, 2012, 1:50:19 am

Melanie Gullett said...

Shame on you all. Traditions and displays do not force anyone into a religion. It is a way of reminding everyone of the melting pot we live in and the differences between us. We should be able to live together and respect those differences instead of trying to eliminate them. This is going too far infringing on my rights to enjoy a tradition that reflects my beliefs. I would never think to get rid of someone else's right to share their beliefs. SHAME ON YOU.

Jun. 16, 2012, 2:18:17 am

Monique Ferranto said...

Shame on the city council, and shame on this state. You all are so worried about political correctness and not offending anyone, that you now have shunned and offended the traditions and people that made.Santa Monica what it is today. The morals and fairness you claim to be upholding are derived from the Judeo-Christian faiths that you've now shunned. Christmas and the Winter Solstice are celebrations of peace and joy. Once again, the atheists have won yet another battle in the war on faith in this state. This is exactly why I'm leaving my kids won't continue to see us religious folks get bullied under the false pretense of so-called equality.

Jun. 16, 2012, 6:53:57 am

patrick j mack said...

These Nativity displays were an eye-sore and had no artistic merit whatsoever. cast off JC Penney mannequins in hideous costumes. They certainly didn't ask any Gay people to help put these up. Our Lord and Savior doesn't need this kind of publicity. Good Riddance.

Jun. 16, 2012, 11:34:33 am

Benjamin said...

I feel very fortunate to live in Santa Monica. But when I'm walking on the Promanade with my girlfriend, and some clown with a microphone is telling me that "the Jews killed Christ and that's why they are cursed." Or when another clown with a microphone and bloody effigies tells me I'm going to Hell... Or when some nut wants to tell me about the Koran... or another nut wants me to put on tefillian

Jun. 16, 2012, 11:38:13 am

Benjamin said...

... oops. hit submit. last word was supposed to be tefillian. in any case, I hate being in Santa Monica on the nights when the nuts have microphones. and I think it's great that there will be more beautify park and less wacky preaching in my neighborhood.

Jun. 15, 2012, 12:16:15 pm

Brian Westley said...

These displays were only for Christians for 60 years. That's not constitutional in the US; the government can't play favorites. They tried a lottery system last year but this year decided to have no displays at all. I find it hypocritical that Christians are complaining about this, because now they are ONLY being treated like non-Christians were for over half a century. A level playing field looks slanted if you're used to governmental favoritism.

Jun. 21, 2012, 5:18:17 am

DK said...

Has the City Council banned unattended nativity displays? Not even remotely. Your fair city can still fill itself with as many as it likes. You can still erect so many nativity displays that even your most zealous Christians will demand that you curtail them. You just have to erect them on your own personal property, on your businesses' properties, on properties owned by your houses of worship, even on our within your motor vehicles if it so pleases you. But, how dare a city take a single step toward treating ALL of its residents with fairness and equality! Truly that is going too far! For surely freedom fails and tyranny begins if a select group is not given the special favor (afforded to no one else) of using government resources to further its religious activities.

Jun. 21, 2012, 6:34:22 am

Chort said...

Hey Michelle, the word is spelled atheist. And the City and the Constitution is right in not establishing a religion where a 3 day old piece of rotting meat gets up and flies away.

Jun. 21, 2012, 2:51:13 pm

Yolanda said...

And once again, the intruders have come to try to take away our joy..

Jun. 21, 2012, 2:53:33 pm

Yolanda said...

People who have no joy or reason to have joy, don't understand.. So they try to take it away from others because it's lonely where they are.

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