PALISADES PARK — As Christmas Day moves ever closer, the tussle over nativity scenes that held a place of prominence in Palisades Park for nearly 60 years continues to grow in fervor and national interest, causing city officials to weigh the possibility of altering the lottery system used to select who gets to put up displays.

How that system evolves is the focus of much interest on both sides of the aisle, with Christians hoping to secure a permanent display in the park and atheists aiming to shut down the tradition altogether.

The council made changes to the system two years ago when competition for the spots first arose, and then again when the 13 applications appeared this year, said Mayor Richard Bloom.

“I think it’s fair to say that, in retrospect, we could have done a better job,” Bloom said. “Frankly, I don’t know how that will make everybody happy.”

The struggle began in early 2011 when City Hall held a lottery to determine who would have access to the 21 slots spread across two blocks of Palisades Park.

The lottery system was chosen to keep it fair, ensuring that City Hall could not exercise any preference, said City Attorney Marsha Moutrie.

Two applications filed by atheists included requests for a maximum of nine spaces each. The atheists won the lottery, leaving one space for Chabad Santa Monica, which traditionally puts up a menorah, and two spaces for a coalition group of Christian churches.

For the last 57 years, those churches have erected a 14-piece display in Palisades Park.

Proponents of the scenes formed the Save Our Nativity Scenes campaign, which kicked off on Sunday, Dec. 4 with an electric-light vigil and a petition asking the City Council to reinstate the decades-old tradition.

That petition has garnered hundreds of signatures, wrote Hunter Jameson, spokesman for the coalition, in an e-mail.

In addition to the signatures, comments have flooded in expressing their support of the displays, or recounting fond Christmas memories that included them, Jameson wrote.

“Many voice frustration that only three of the scenes are up in Palisades Park this year,” Jameson wrote. “I would say they are displeased that this unique Santa Monica tradition has been reduced to a shadow of its former self.”

The petition and its backers hope to prove that the display should enjoy some protection as a popular display, and include the Chabad menorah, which has also been erected for many years, in the request.

“We are very glad that Chabad won a place in the lottery in Palisades Park,” Jameson wrote. “Its menorah will be right next to our booths. That’s fitting.”

What’s not fitting for Jameson is a group of people with few or no signs taking up space used for the Christian displays.

There’s a reason for that, said Damon Vix, the face of the atheist sign campaign.

The atheist groups had no real desire to set up displays, but wanted to counter the nativity scenes in size and message. The unused spots represent a statement as well, Vix said.

“We wanted them to leave it as a park. It’s a better use of the property,” Vix said. “What’s going on is a spectacle, and it’s been a spectacle for 57 years.”

The signs have also drawn ire for their appearance, which aren’t as elaborate as the 14 nativity displays.

While the first one, a sign with a quote by founding father Thomas Jefferson bashing religion was meant to be unattractive — “It’s a cage-like structure and I purposefully made it ugly because I think the nativity scenes are ugly,” Vix said — the remaining signs were a practical matter.

“The city didn’t buy or create a bunch for displays with props and wardrobe, signage and electricity,” Vix said. “We had to do this all on our own. It cost a couple thousand dollars of my own money.”

Ultimately, Vix and his fellows hope that the displays will be shut down completely and end what he sees as an unconstitutional support of religion by local government.

ashley@www.smdp.com

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