LOS ANGELES — The attorney for a committee suing to protect nativity scenes in Palisades Park plans to appeal the Thursday ruling by a Los Angeles federal judge dismissing the group’s lawsuit to force City Hall to reopen spaces to private displays, including Christmas nativity scenes.
U.S. District Court Judge Audrey Collins issued the ruling after earlier this month denying an injunction sought by the Santa Monica Nativity Scenes Committee.
William Becker, the attorney for the committee, said Friday that he felt confident that he would prevail in the appeal, calling the judge’s decision “unreasonable.”
“I would welcome the opportunity to establish legal precedence on this,” Becker said.
Deputy City Attorney Barry Rosenbaum was content with the judge’s ruling, which affirmed City Hall’s right to keep unattended displays out of the park.
“This is a very strong decision and certainly follows the established law,” Rosenbaum said Friday.
Christmastime nativity scenes had been erected in Palisades Park for nearly 60 years. Last year, atheists flooded the Community & Cultural Services Department with applications, forcing city officials to come up with a lottery process that ultimately made no one happy.
Atheists won 18 of the 21 spaces, leaving the majority of the nativity dioramas out in the cold.
The City Council then banned private, unattended displays at the park.
Collins had said City Hall was within its constitutional right to eliminate the exemption that had allowed the nativity at the oceanfront Palisades Park because the change affected all comers — from Christians to Jews to atheists — and provided other avenues for public religious speech.
She also said that the city’s lottery process was inarguably “content neutral,” meaning that it treated every applicant the same regardless of message.
The coalition of churches that had put on the life-sized, 14-booth nativity display for decades argued the city banned it rather than referee a religious dispute that began three years ago when atheists first set up their messages alongside the Christmas dioramas.
In her ruling Thursday, Collins said the coalition has other options.
“For instance, plaintiff could erect displays in some public parks around the city (excluding Palisades Park) as part of a one-day community events permit, or plaintiff could erect attended displays in all of the city’s public parks,” Collins wrote in her 25-page ruling. “Plaintiff raises several arguments to suggest that these alternatives are not adequate, but none is persuasive.”
Santa Monica city officials are largely mum on the subject because of the pending litigation, but City Councilmember Bob Holbrook, for one, wishes the vitriol and anger were over.
“I felt terrible about what happened in the park last year,” Holbrook said. “It went beyond saying ‘I don’t believe in God’ and became a battle.”
After voting yes on the ban, Holbrook worked with the churches to find a new location on private property for the displays. A separate group is also planning to put up “living” displays in Palisades Park for two hours each day in December.
Such a move would allow them to celebrate the season without leaving the displays unattended, which is banned under the ordinance.
Those alternatives and solutions should be the focus, Holbrook said.
“I wish them well, but I don’t wish them well in court, because I think it’s a waste of time and energy on their part,” Holbrook said.
The nativity scenes are not the only displays impacted by the law.
There will be no Christmas tree on the Third Street Promenade this year, and a tree and menorah that had been put up on the Santa Monica Pier by a local Jewish group and city employees, respectively, were both removed.
City Hall is “very attentive to these issues” because of the litigation, said Kate Vernez, deputy city manager of special projects.
The trouble in Santa Monica began three years ago, when atheist Damon Vix was granted a booth in Palisades Park alongside the story of Jesus Christ’s birth.
Vix hung a sign that quoted Thomas Jefferson: “Religions are all alike — founded on fables and mythologies.” The other side read “Happy Solstice.” He repeated the display the following year but then upped the stakes significantly.
Vix recruited 10 others last year to inundate the city with applications for displays and the atheists used half their spaces, displaying signs such as one that showed pictures of Poseidon, Jesus, Santa Claus and the devil.
Most of the signs were vandalized and in response the City Council ended a tradition that began in 1953 and earned Santa Monica one of its nicknames, the “City of the Christmas Story.”
The Associated Press contributed to this report.