CITY HALL — An attorney representing 13 local churches has filed suit against City Hall in an attempt to overturn a decision by the City Council in June that ended a long-standing tradition of nativity displays in Palisades Park.
According to the complaint, the City Council erred in banning “unattended winter displays” in Palisades Park because the seven-member board did so specifically to avoid controversy, effectively quashing the free speech rights of churches who had celebrated the season with displays for nearly six decades.
Their action put an end to a fight between local Christian groups and atheists, mostly from outside Santa Monica, who turned in applications for 21 available spots through a lottery system that debuted in 2011 when, for the first time, City Hall received more applications for displays than it had room to put them.
Atheist organizations won 18 of those spots, leaving two for the Christians and one for a Menorah put up by the Chabad House. The atheists installed only a handful of displays, which angered others who felt cheated out of the spots.
Four months later, William Becker, representing the Santa Monica Nativity Scenes Committee, has filed a lawsuit accusing City Hall’s blanket ban of winter displays unconstitutional, hopefully in time for the tradition to resume in 2012.
It took that long to put the suit together because Becker, who’s taking on the case pro bono, had to go through the transcript of the meeting in which the City Council decided to adopt the ban, as well as research into the full history of the displays, Becker said.
He holds that testimony given by several council members shows that they stopped the tradition in order to end controversy rather than out of a belief that the displays were unconstitutional or that they were adopting a general policy.
“The reason this lawsuit has been made possible is that they tried to justify amending the ordinance on the reasoning that they feared religious conflict would occur and wanted to avoid controversy,” Becker said.
In doing so, City Hall took the religious content of the displays into consideration, thereby violating the First Amendment rights of the Christian groups, Becker said.
Mayor Pro Tem Gleam Davis described the lawsuit as “unfortunate.”
“I think that the council gave a lot of consideration to the issue and felt that while it’s a cherished and beloved tradition in Santa Monica, First Amendment law prohibited us from giving any preferences to the nativity scenes,” Davis said.
The lottery system was just as unpopular, she noted.
“We could continue the lottery — which did not satisfy anyone — or ban unattended winter displays which seemed the best way to protect the First Amendment rights and at the same time avoid the conflicts that can arise when you start to restrict speech in a public place,” Davis said.
That was the rationale proffered by City Attorney Marsha Moutrie who, over the course of multiple hearings on the issue, told council members and the community that the council could not choose to preserve the nativity displays alone.
Furthermore, the council was well within its rights to eliminate the displays as they were an exception worked into a ban on unattended displays on public property, Moutrie said in June.
Becker plans to file an injunction in federal court on Wednesday that, if approved, would possibly allow the 14 nativity scenes to go up in the park in time for the 2012 winter season.