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(photo by Daniel Archuleta)

CITY HALL – Palisades Park in December will look quite different this winter now that erecting dioramas depicting the birth of Jesus Christ, a tradition in Santa Monica for over half a century, is no longer allowed there.

The City Council, citing concerns about escalating tension and the impact the winter displays have on the park and its visitors, voted unanimously Tuesday night to eliminate an exception that allowed churches, synagogues, atheists and others to set up displays along Ocean Avenue and leave them unattended.

The council could have stuck with a lottery system, which was used for the first time last year by City Hall after an unusually high number of applications for display space flooded in, most of them coming from atheists who opposed the presence of nativity scenes on public land.

However, after hearing from the director of community and cultural services and the city attorney about the difficulty of administering the lottery, the potential for further conflict between the devout and non-believers, and the displays’ impact on open space, the council voted in favor of the ban.

“I’m saddened to be at this point. For one, I enjoy the nativity scenes,” said Councilman Terry O’Day, who took his children to see the displays, calling them a great teaching opportunity. “[B]ut in staying with the current [lottery system], I feel like we are setting up a ring for a competition – one that is getting nasty, and that is certainly not in the Christmas spirit. … There are other ways to celebrate faith or non-faith.”

Controversy over the scenes erupted last holiday season when a group of atheists were able to secure a majority of the 21 spaces in the lottery, forcing for the first time a coalition of 14 religious groups in Santa Monica to scale back their nativity scene displays. That angered some longtime residents, but pleased others who felt offended by the presence of Jesus in the manger or thought the displays detracted from the park’s aesthetics.

The story went national with the recommendation to ban displays drawing harsh criticism and ridicule from all corners of the country. The committee that sponsors the nativity scenes tried to devise a new lottery system with strict guidelines that were rejected by City Hall as being too discriminatory in terms of content by forcing city staff to weed out those applicants who spoke out against any religion.

City Attorney Marsha Moutrie, who told the council that her office had received both legal and physical threats after recommending the ban, said City Hall was well within its right to do away with the winter display exception as the move would still leave many avenues open for people to express their beliefs, such as erecting attended displays or handing out leaflets on the Santa Monica Pier or setting up a booth on the Third Street Promenade.

That, and some of the council members’ commitment to help find other means to keep the nativity tradition going, did nothing to soften the blow for those who dedicated time and money to erect the displays and who felt the council was giving in too easily to the demands of atheists.

Those in support testified to the power of the nativity scenes to bring a community together, to remind people about the true meaning of Christmas. Some preached about the power of Jesus Christ to transform lives and quoted scripture while others slammed atheists – who some called Scrooges and Grinches – for trying to take a beloved tradition away. They begged the council to “not take the easy way out” and approve a ban.

Those opposed to the nativity scenes spoke about the hassle and cost of administering the lottery system. There were those who complained the displays hindered views or found them to be offensive. Some expressed concerns about lawsuits and continued conflict within the community.

Both groups said their rights had been violated – the right to religious expression and the right to be free from religious speech.

Members of the council said they were not banning freedom of expression or religion and that their vote should not be seen as them favoring one group over another.

Councilmember Gleam Davis said even if the council were to stick with the lottery system, there would never be a guarantee that the local churches would secure enough space to display all 14 nativity scenes, something which was a high priority for them. The lottery would have to remain open to all and city employees would not be allowed to discriminate based on an applicant’s message.

“We can’t draw a circle around the nativity scenes and say these are protected and allowed to exist,” she said.

In presenting her reasoning for recommending a ban, Moutrie, who called the display exception “out of whack” with other rules for parks, cited a decision by the U.S. Court of Appeals, First Circuit that sided with the town of Lexington, Mass. after it banned the display of a crèche in The Battle Green, the site of the first battle of the Revolutionary War and a cherished public space.

The facts of that case are very similar to Santa Monica’s predicament. Both displays were long-standing traditions erected in prominent public spaces by non-governmental groups. In the case of The Battle Green it was the Knights of Columbus, which sued the city after its governing board enacted a ban following pressure from other groups to allow them to get in on the act.

Some wanted to place a sign near the crèche indicating some citizens’ objections to its presence on public land. Other applicants requested permission for a display honoring witchcraft at Halloween and for the erection of a pyramid to honor the Egyptian Sun God Ra during the month of April.

Instead of dealing with the hassle, and concerned about how an increase in displays would impact the serenity, beauty and significance of The Battle Green, the governing board of the city went for a ban.

In the end, the court sided with the city.

“Admittedly, its solution – the banning of all unattended structures from the village green – inhibits some speech, but the solution is content-neutral, narrowly tailored to suppress no more speech than necessary, and leaves open ample alternative avenues of communication,” the court’s opinion states.

No word as of yet if the committee behind the nativity scenes plans to challenge the council’s decision.

More to come in Thursday’s edition of the Daily Press.

kevinh@smdp.com