CITY HALL — Spring has not yet sprung, but City Hall is already thinking about 2013’s winter holiday season, and what won’t be under the Christmas tree.
Staff is expected to recommend that the City Council end a six-decade tradition of holiday displays in Palisades Park after a controversial contest for display space between atheists and Christians put Santa Monica under the national spotlight.
For the first time in 57 years, a group of organized atheists took over space traditionally allotted to a coalition of 13 churches for nativity displays, prompting calls by the community to reserve the spaces for the churches in the name of tradition.
According to a report by the City Attorney’s Office, Santa Monica officials cannot pick and choose which displays to approve or deny because they’re considered free speech under the U.S. Constitution, tradition or no tradition.
City Hall either must continue to allocate spaces using the lottery system developed for the 2011 season, or disallow the displays altogether.
Staff lobbied for the end of the displays because of the cost of administering the system, the ability for groups to put their displays on private property and community input.
“… many residents who complained about winter displays this year urged that they would rather preserve the aesthetic qualities of this designated landmark and look at the ocean vista than continue the displays,” according to the report.
The report represents a victory for Damon Vix, an atheist and Burbank resident who first opposed the nativity scenes’ presence on public land 20 years ago when he was working in Santa Monica.
He felt that the practice should end or at least become open to other points of view.
This is the best of all worlds, he said.
“If it’s canceled, I would feel that this was a worthwhile endeavor,” Vix said. “At the same time, it’s a hollow victory, because a lot of people are upset and it doesn’t feel god to me knowing that people are attached to this.”
Vix, his acquaintances and other atheist organizations inundated City Hall with applications to fill the display spaces with “winter solstice greetings,” pushing out the Christian groups who won only two spaces in the lottery. The Chabad House received one space for a menorah, its traditional display.
The move angered Christian groups, who argued that their nativity scenes deserved protection because they were Santa Monica residents, unlike the atheists, and had been carrying on the tradition for a long time.
Adding insult to injury, the atheists didn’t fill all of the spaces that they won through the lottery.
Hundreds of people signed the Save Our Nativity Scenes petition and contacted the City Council with their complaints, prompting discussion of altering the lottery system.
On Tuesday, the City Council will get the chance to decide if the lottery system is worth the monetary cost and staff time, or if the sun has set on holiday displays in Palisades Park.
Hunter Jameson, a representative of the Christian coalition, urged council members Thursday to preserve the spaces.
“The question for council members to decide Tuesday is whether to capitulate to a small group of out-of-town agitators that want to censor the Santa Monica Christmas story and its message of love, joy and peace, or to direct staff to undertake further serious effort to find a way to preserve this beloved tradition,” Jameson wrote in an e-mail.
Even Vix’s group will be a little disappointed if the displays go away. A number of people were already excited to create displays for the next year, he said.
Councilmember Kevin McKeown predicted Thursday that the council would go along with staff’s recommendation.
“Under constitutional law and court interpretations, we have no options, zero, in our parks. Moving the displays onto private property lets the
community decide what displays and where,” McKeown wrote in an e-mail. “Eastertide seems the wrong ecclesiastical season to be discussing this, but the nativity displays in Palisades Park just aren’t going to be resurrected.”