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.
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.”
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.”