In Santa Monica, It’s Not Looking a Lot Like Christmas Thanks to Nativity Scene Ban

A court fight between religious groups and the city of Santa Monica, Calif., ends with a blanket ban on "Winter Displays."

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Ringo H.W. Chiu / AP

A man walks past two of the traditional Nativity scenes along Ocean Avenue at Palisades Park in Santa Monica, Calif., Dec. 13, 2011.

Since 1953, visitors to Palisades Park in Santa Monica, Calif., would always be greeted by a biblical depiction of the birth of Jesus during the holiday season. But this year, rather than Mary, Joseph and the Three Wise Men, people who come to the park will likely only see palm trees, sand and the Pacific Ocean, after a federal judge ruled that a ban of nativity scenes would be allowed to stand.

Last week U.S. District Court Judge Audrey B. Collins ruled that the court would not force the city to allow a local religious organization, comprised of several area churches and the Santa Monica Police Officers’ Association, to set up nativity scenes in the park this holiday season — effectively ending a nearly six-decade tradition. It also marks end of the latest chapter in the nationwide debate over religious displays in public places, and the balance between freedom of religion and freedom of speech in the First Amendment.

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The city has also requested that the lawsuit filed by the group — the Santa Monica Nativity Scenes Committee — be dropped; Collins is expected to rule in the city’s favor when the case comes before her on Dec. 3. William J. Becker, the organization’s lawyer, has called the loss an “erosion” of constitutional religious rights.

“The city is not hostile to Christianity,” he told TIME in a phone interview from his Los Angeles office. “But what the city did is find their way out; they took the cheap way out. Instead of protecting our First Amendment freedoms, they said its not their job to do that.

“Like hell — Their job is to protect citizens’ rights, and they didn’t do that.”

The controversy over Santa Monica’s nativity displays goes back to 2010, when Damon Vix, 44, a movie set builder and avowed atheist, applied for virtually all of the spaces the city allocates for so-called “Winter Displays.” Vix was allowed space for 14 booths but only put up one: a chain-link fence and a quote from Thomas Jefferson that read: “Religions are all alike — founded upon fables and mythologies.”

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It was a move sure to anger Christians who supported the city’s nativity display tradition, but there wasn’t much they could do about it, legally; as Adam Cohen notes elsewhere on TIME.com, the Supreme Court has ruled that a government can’t allow some forms of speech on public property but prohibit others. In 2011, the city changed the applications process from first come, first served to a lottery system. The display area was divided into 21 spots for which applicants could apply for nine each. The Santa Monica Nativity Scenes Committee accuses Vix of recruiting other non-religious groups to apply for as many spots as possible. As a result, the organization says, the city gave 18 of the 21 allotted spots to secular groups, which used the booths for allegedly anti-religious messages. The nativity scenes group won two spaces and a Jewish group got one.

To head off an ever larger number of controversial applications, to avoid obstructing views and causing excessive wear and tear on the beachfront and — not incidentally — to prevent another flood of applications that last year required two extra staffers and 245 additional hours of work, the city decided earlier this year to get rid of all unattended private displays at Palisades Park. Enraged, the Santa Monica Nativity Scenes Committee filed suit in October to get a judge to grant a preliminary injunction that would allow the displays to be set up this year.

But in her ruling, Judge Collins noted that the ban was not specific just to the nativity committee and that it applied to all groups interested in creating a display in Palisades Park. She also found that the city’s blanket ban didn’t pick sides between religious and secular displays. She further found that the ban was not instituted because of any problem the council found with the content of the nativity scene’s displays.

“To demonstrate a violation, Plaintiff must show that it was intentionally treated differently from others similarly situated and that there is no rational basis for the difference in treatment,” Collins wrote in her opinion.

Vix, who had long objected to any kind of religious display in the park, got his idea from a display in the park from an atheist group that simply read “Reason’s Greetings.” He claims the city never had the right to allow the nativity scenes — that they violated the separation of church and state enshrined in the Constitution. “I wanted to challenge the city to reexamine what they had in Palisades Park,” he explained to TIME. “They didn’t think about what they did, they just carried on a decades-old tradition that should never have started.

But he feels that in banning any type of holiday displays, the city actually did the right thing. “It’s better to keep the park a park,” he said. “There are all kinds of places to express these ideas. When I first saw these displays, it really identified Santa Monica with the Christian tradition exclusively and that wasn’t right.”

6 comments
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PlumbLine
PlumbLine

I think the state of the nation is related.........

Romans 1:28-32..........28 And even as they did not like to retain God in their knowledge, God gave them over to a debased mind, to do those things which are not fitting; 29 being filled with all unrighteousness, sexual immorality, wickedness, covetousness, maliciousness; full of envy, murder, strife, deceit, evil-mindedness; they are whisperers, 30 backbiters, haters of God, violent, proud, boasters, inventors of evil things, disobedient to parents, 31 undiscerning, untrustworthy, unloving, unforgiving, unmerciful; 32 who, knowing the righteous judgment of God, that those who practice such things are deserving of death, not only do the same but also approve of those who practice them.

CraigHolmes
CraigHolmes

You are 100% right WendyFaye!!! How sad for the USA!

WendyFaye
WendyFaye like.author.displayName like.author.displayName 2 Like

Ok, let's try this "Christmas" "Christians" "Christ" ... does anyone make a connections here????  the whole gift giving thing is to honor the birth of our saviour ... like when the 3 wisemen brought gifts to Him when he was born. (Its actually a little more complicated than that but that's the simplified version.) It's been celebrated for a couple thousand years, the story depicted in schools and movies ... wow, are we not allowed to keep anything as sacred anymore? Why does it have to be equal or even or even scutinized ... I bet if Christians stopped buying in protest the stores would start supporting us. Geez, why can't they just leave us alone and let us worship the way we choose without non-believers sticking their nose in and finding something wrong with a tradition and belief that has been in place for thousands of years? It makes me so sad.

KimCarl
KimCarl like.author.displayName 1 Like

Why can't we all share the space?  It so incredibly sad that the Christmas decorations will no longer be allowed to celebrate the Christmas holiday so a bunch of Grinches can feel better.  Instead of adding to the joy, happiness is taken away in the name of political correctness.  A beautiful tradition has been lost.  Congratulations Grinches I'm sure you are quite pleased in your selfish little worlds.

Tartar16
Tartar16

I find it interesting/frustrating/annoying that Christians seem to get up in arms regarding religious displays in public.  I personally have no problem with having the nativity scene in public--as long as they display other symbols of other religions in the same sized spaces.  Yet, it seems as if Christians overwhelming balk at the idea of sharing holiday space with other religions.  Christianity is not the only religion in this country, and we do have a separation of church and state.  I'm not saying that if the owner of a space wants to put up a nativity scene he or she should not be allowed to do it, but realize that you may be alienating or even offending others who may take their business away from you.  Christmas is not the only holiday celebrated this time of year, and it is important to recognize that.    

ChristianGoodlove
ChristianGoodlove

Sickening! Are they going to remove the statue of Mother Mary next????????