A woman stops to view one of the three nativity scenes in Palisades Park on Tuesday. (photo by Daniel Archuleta)

CITY HALL — Christmas may not be in the air, but controversy is.

A nonprofit law group that represents religious interests released a proposal Tuesday for a system that would allow displays for only December holidays to be erected in Palisades Park during the traditional holiday season.

The seven-page document issued by the Liberty Counsel calls for a system that would allow displays that depict holidays from the month of December, ban signs that take up more than 15 percent of any design and outlaw speech against other religions.

It comes two weeks in advance of a City Council meeting that will decide the fate of the winter displays, a 57-year tradition in Santa Monica that was dominated by a coalition of churches and their 14 dioramas of the nativity story until a group of atheists from outside the city stole the show in 2011.

Council members are expected to make a decision on May 22 on whether or not to allow the displays at all for 2012 after a flood of applications for the normally uncontested spots forced staff to put a lottery system in place for the 21 spaces.

That cost City Hall money, resulted in accusations of unfairness and ultimately caused a stir that was splashed across headlines nationwide.

Staff recommended in February that the whole tradition be scrapped.

Keeping some version of the tradition alive would be preferable, but may not be possible, said Mayor Richard Bloom.

“That said, I will review the proposal that this organization is making very carefully as well as any other proposals that are made and keep an open mind,” Bloom said.

The Liberty Counsel, intervening on behalf of the Save Our Nativity Scenes group, believes it has found the solution.

The proposal would create fair, subjective standards and prevent any one group from dominating the system, said Mathew Staver, the founder and chairman of Liberty Counsel.

“One of the things that the atheists have done is try to abuse the forum,” Staver said. “They try to use it as a soap box to run down other people’s religions and holidays. That’s not what this forum is about.”

However, under the rules proposed, atheists would be hard-pressed to put up any of the displays that they posted last year.

Those consisted mostly of signs with messages, many of which assaulted religion.

The sign that started it all, put up first in 2010 by Burbank prop maker Damon Vix, prominently displayed a quote from founding father Thomas Jefferson saying that religions are based on fables and mythologies.

The signs had little to do with any “December holiday,” which would be required under Liberty Counsel’s proposal.

Staver did not want to discuss what kinds of holidays atheists could use, saying only that they had to be “recognized,” and could not be birthdays.

“I’m not going to tell them what to say, as long as they or anyone else do not cut down another religion,” Staver said.

The proposal also requires that the displays be erected by Dec.14. If not, the space would be given away to another party. Several of the spaces won by atheist groups were unused last year.

City officials have had very little time to review the proposal, but say that it raises some concerns.

City Attorney Marsha Moutrie wrote in an e-mail Wednesday that it would be difficult if not impossible to ask people to excise speech regarding other religions.

“I don’t think we can require people to ‘be nice,’ because we can’t censor content except in a very, very limited way,” she wrote in an e-mail.

Other arguments brought up in the proposal — including limiting displays based on aesthetics or restricting signs in particular — will require further review, Moutrie wrote.

If the City Council chooses to adopt the Liberty Counsel construct, the organization agreed to take on any litigation should the matter be taken to court, Staver promised.

The offer was appreciated, but declined.

“We prefer to handle it and are quite capable of handling it,” Bloom said.


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