Nativity scenes (File photo)

Nativity scenes (File photo)

OCEAN PARK BLVD — The end of a 60-year tradition of erecting winter displays in Palisades Park removed a huge burden from public employees without impacting the ability of participants to share their message with the world, according to a City Hall release.

Employees in the Community & Cultural Services Department alone cut hours devoted to administering the winter displays from 245 hours in 2011 to 80 hours in 2012 after a City Council decision in June 2012 to ban unattended winter displays from Palisades Park, according to the report.

That does not count other departments who also became involved in watching over the crèches and signs, particularly as controversy began to brew over what some called an invasion of atheist displays in 2011 which displaced 14 scenes traditionally erected by local churches depicting the birth story of Jesus Christ.

Furthermore, both the Christian coalition that put up the nativity scenes as well as the Chabad House in Santa Monica found private property on which to place their displays, which was still permitted under the City Council’s decision.

Groups like the Christian Defense Coalition, Chabad House and Trinity Church of Santa Monica also held events in the disputed park, according to the report.

Staff time and damage to the landmarked Palisades Park were two main arguments presented to a federal judge by the City Attorney’s Office in November when the Santa Monica Nativity Scenes Committee sued City Hall, claiming that the decision to end the displays violated their free speech rights.

William Becker, the attorney for the coalition, dismissed those arguments, saying instead that City Hall had capitulated to atheist groups who flooded the Community & Cultural Services Department with applications for the 21 spaces traditionally allotted for the displays in Palisades Park in 2011.

It was the first time that the number of applications exceeded the number of spaces available, forcing employees to create a lottery system to avoid showing preference to one group over another. That took time to administer, and made employees the target of much hate mail after the atheist groups walked away with 18 of the spots.

It didn’t help that they only filled some of those spaces with displays.

Rather than continue that fight, city officials requested that the City Council close a loophole in a blanket law banning unattended displays in city parks that allowed for the tradition.

In doing so, the City Council gave in to what Becker calls the “heckler’s veto” in an attempt to avoid controversy, which he argues is unconstitutional.

The ability for groups to use private property for their displays isn’t enough, Becker said.

“They do not reach the intended audience of throngs of visitors and pilgrims to Palisades Park seeking out an exhibition that had become a community tradition,” Becker said.

He views the report released last week as an attempt to rebut arguments he put forward in arguing for a preliminary injunction that would have allowed the tradition to continue in 2012, at least until the coalition’s lawsuit had been decided.

Becker’s position has already been rejected once in court. Federal Judge Audrey Collins dismissed the case in November, noting that the Santa Monica Nativity Scenes Committee still had the opportunity to get an events permit to display the scenes or put them on private property.

The group put their scenes up in front of Watts Commercial Properties on the 2700 block of Ocean Park Boulevard.

Downtown Santa Monica, Inc. applied for such an events permit for its own winter events, including a holiday parade and tree lighting ceremony, holiday crafts and gift wrapping event and menorah lighting, according to the report.

The organization, which manages the bustling Third Street Promenade, did not put up its Christmas tree in 2012 for the first time in at least 15 years. Some believed that the tree could also have been considered an unattended display, and the promenade is city-owned property.

Becker still intends to pursue the appeal, which will be filed by June, he said.

 

ashley@smdp.com