PALISADES PARK — A coalition of Christian churches has launched an online petition to try and win back the right to display 14 scenes from the nativity story at Palisades Park after losing a lottery for the spaces to a group of atheists from outside Santa Monica.

The petition, which was published Sunday, urges city officials, including City Council members, to “take all needed steps” to assure space in Palisades Park for all 14 booths of the nativity scenes and a menorah display in perpetuity.

The menorah display belongs to the local Chabad group. Petitioners included it in the request because it is a “time-honored tradition in Palisades Park.”

The nativity scenes have been a holiday tradition in Santa Monica for over 55 years.

Save Our Nativity Scenes (SONS), the activist arm of the coalition, argues in the petition that the nativity scenes represent a “beloved tradition” that send a message of love, hope and peace to thousands of Santa Monicans and visitors that come to see the display each year.

The displays are put up by 14 Santa Monica organizations that represent more than 20,000 people, the petition reads, and City Hall should give the display preference over outsiders they feel wish to disrupt the tradition.

Those “outsiders” include Damon Vix, a prop builder in Hollywood who managed to make himself the face of the atheist takeover when he erected a sign last year with a quote from founding father Thomas Jefferson that reads, “Religions are all alike — founded on fables and mythologies,” and other selections from other founding fathers and Supreme Court decisions about the importance of separating church and state.

Vix and other groups, largely living outside city limits, applied for and received 18 of the 21 available spots for displays in Palisades Park.

In previous years, only two or three organizations applied for space, and supply always exceeded demand.

This holiday season marked the first year where the number of applications far outpaced the number of spaces available, forcing the city to use a random lottery system to choose which groups would get to put up displays.

It was not, however, the first year that the coalition of churches requested protection for their displays, wrote City Attorney Marsha Moutrie in an e-mail.

“In the last few years, other groups asked for an equal opportunity to use display space in Palisades Park. Last year, in response to these competing requests, the group (that) puts up the nativity displays asked for preference based on the long-standing tradition of nativity scenes in the park,” Moutrie wrote. “But the First Amendment requirements have no exception favoring traditional views or practices.”

The church groups joined 12 other applicants for the 21 spaces for the 2011 season. Each applicant could request nine spaces, and three of the four groups selected through the random lottery did — Hunter Jameson, representing the nativity scenes; Joe Naranja, whose display is entitled “Christmas spirit”; and Raymond McNeely, who put up a solstice greeting.

McNeely and Naranja’s applications were fulfilled in full. Jameson, however, was only allotted two spaces.

Three displays, including angels declaring the birth of Christ to the shepherds, the scene depicting the Christ child surrounded by the Wise Men and finally a “peace on earth” booth were put up this year.

City officials cannot select organizations based on their city of origin or how long they’ve been displayed at Palisades Park, Moutrie wrote. Any changes to the lottery process, like limiting the number of spaces that can be requested, would go through the City Council.

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