Federal Court Rebuffs Request From Santa Monica Nativity Scene Coalition

Tuesday, 20 Nov 2012, 1:49:00 AM

Parimal M. Rohit

One of the nativity scenes at Palisades Park on display last Christmas. City Council’s unanimous voted June 12 put an end to the nearly 60-year tradition.
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One of the nativity scenes at Palisades Park on display last Christmas. City Council’s unanimous voted June 12 put an end to the nearly 60-year tradition.

The holiday season is just around the corner, but there may be a little less cheer amongst a group hoping to bring Nativity Scenes back to Santa Monica. A federal judge rejected a motion Monday, Nov. 19 by a group seeking to prevent City Hall from enforcing its ban on erected structures at Palisades Park.

U.S. District Judge Audrey B. Collins ruled Monday morning against the Santa Monica Nativity Scenes Committee, which had two weeks earlier filed a request for a preliminary injunction to prevent Santa Monica from enforcing its ban against Nativity Scenes along a stretch of Ocean Avenue. The Committee claimed the ban violated the group’s First Amendment rights under the Establishment Clause.

Collins denied the preliminary injunction, stating the city ordinance was constitutional and that City Hall was legally entitled to prevent erected structures in public spaces so long as the ban was equally applied to everyone irrespective of beliefs and it allowed for religious speech to take place in other public forums.

Representing the Committee were attorneys William J. Becker, Jr., and Michael John Peffer, who filed the preliminary injunction motion in hopes to allow Nativity scenes to be displayed at Palisades Park as their federal lawsuit plays out in the United States District Court.

Becker and Peffer stated in the motion their client has displayed Nativity Scenes in Santa Monica for 59 years, the last eight of which were pursuant to Santa Monica’s “content-neutral Winter Display Policy.”

The attorneys stated City Hall effectively squelched constitutionally protected religious speech and its actions would “unlawful actions seek to erase history under the disingenuous pretense that this year administrative resources will be compromised due to ‘increased impacts on the park and on staff resources.’”

According to reports, Collins disagreed with that argument at Monday morning’s hearing, saying City Hall did not enact its policy based upon any specific content.

In light of Monday’s ruling, the Committee’s attorneys expect the federal matter on the trial to be dismissed in early December. Becker said an appeal is planned.

“At stake is Plaintiff’s First Amendment right of expression in a traditional public forum—a public park,” Becker and Peffer wrote in their motion for a preliminary injunction.

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 Avenue.

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, according to City staff, “in order to allocate display opportunities in an unbiased manner.”

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.

Specifically, 18 of the 21 spaces in Palisades Park were allocated to atheist groups. Only two slots were allocated to Christmas displays; a Hanukkah display was awarded the other slot.

Accordingly, the issue became tense with differing groups hoping to put up a winter display of some sort during the Christmas season. City Hall then 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.

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

According to reports, the City Attorney’s office stated city staff annually spends about 245 hours reviewing applications for spaces.

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