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(photo by Daniel Archuleta)

CITY HALL — The question of whether or not Santa Monica will have nativity scene displays in Palisades Park this year remains undecided.

The City Council begged off a final decision to eliminate an exception that allows unattended displays in Palisades Park in December after previous discussions about the current budget and a field-sharing agreement with the local school district ran long.

If council members approve the change at its June 12 meeting, a coalition of churches could not continue a 57-year tradition depicting the Christian nativity story in Palisades Park at Christmastime.

Other groups that have put up displays in the past, including the Chabad in Santa Monica and atheist groups, would also be banned.

Public comment still proceeded past midnight, with those for the continuation of displays defending them on the basis of tradition and those against the displays claiming that the religious dioramas had no place on public land.

Both relied on free speech to defend their points of view.

Hunter Jameson, the spokesperson for the Santa Monica Nativity Scenes Committee, asked the City Council not only to reject the proposal to ban all displays, but to ensure that all 14 nativity displays get space in the park.

“I ask you to meet your constitutional obligation and responsibility to enable the exercise of free speech in Palisades Park, including the restoration of the entire 14-booth nativity scene display in December,” Jameson said.

The request was an about-face from a position staked out by the committee and the Liberty Counsel, an outside organization that weighed in with a proposal that would allow displays to continue on in the park.

“Our review of the situation led us to the realization and understanding that the previous proposals that we made would not be sufficient to protect our full constitutional rights that we have,” Jameson said Wednesday.

Instead, the group decided to go with a more “comprehensive” approach, standing fast to their position that they have the right to put up all 14 displays in the park during the December period.

How that would work given a large amount of expected competition for only 21 spots was unclear.

“It is not up to us to come up with the exact mechanism or means,” Jameson said. “It is not up to us to come up with proposals to guarantee our first amendment rights. It is up to (City Hall) to come up with methods to protect free speech and exercise of religion.”

The City Attorney’s Office has taken a dim view of City Hall’s ability to give any special protections to the nativity displays, regardless of the length of the tradition.

City Attorney Marsha Moutrie told council on Tuesday that they have two general options: allowing winter displays without regard to their content or getting rid of them altogether.

Staff recommended ending the practice after December 2011 when a large number of applicants applied for the 21 spots. It was the first time in the history of the displays that there were more applications than spots available, and it forced staff to create a lottery system.

A group of atheists coordinated their applications and won 18 spaces. That left one for the Chabad and only two for the coalition of churches behind the nativity displays.

The hubbub that ensued, and the cost of administering the lottery, convinced staff that it would be better to end the practice.

The City Council will take the issue up for deliberation at its June 12 meeting. Members of the public will still be able to speak on the issue.

ashley@www.smdp.com

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