Santa Monica nativity scenes. (Photo by Daniel Archuleta)
Santa Monica nativity scenes. (Photo by Daniel Archuleta)

DOWNTOWN L.A. — Attorneys for City Hall and the Santa Monica Nativity Scenes Committee are expected to meet in court Monday to hash out whether or not the contested nativity scenes will appear in Palisades Park this winter, as they have for nearly 60 years.

Judge Audrey Collins will hear arguments for and against an injunction sought by the committee that would allow displays with only positive seasonal messaging, a move which would effectively ban several signs erected last year that referred to religion as a myth or compared Santa Claus to the devil.

If granted, it would prevent City Hall from enforcing a nine-year-old ordinance prohibiting unattended displays in public parks. In June, the City Council voted to close a loophole that had allowed the dioramas depicting 14 scenes from the birth of Jesus Christ to be put up each year.

The goal of the injunction is to maintain free speech rights while at the same time protecting the tradition of the displays, attorney William Becker has said.

“Everyone’s free to express whatever they want to express, they just don’t have a right to counter a celebration with insults and protests,” Becker said in October.

The injunction follows a lawsuit filed in October alleging that the City Council’s decision to end the tradition of the displays outright violated the committee’s free speech rights because the council members did so to avoid controversy rather than out of concerns about the tradition’s constitutionality.

Included in the lawsuit are numerous references to testimony from June where each of the council members present — Councilmembers Bobby Shriver and Pam O’Connor were not — expressed concerns about the administration of the lottery system which staff created for the 2011 season when, for the first time in the history of the event, more applications for space came in than there were spaces to allot.

According to testimony by Wendy Pietrzak, a senior administrative analyst with City Hall, staff from the Community and Cultural Services Department spent 245 hours corresponding with applicants for the spaces, conducting the lottery and responding to questions from the public.

Amongst the roughly 120 comments and inquiries that staff responded to, “many were hostile and some were threats to their personal safety,” according to Pietrzak’s testimony.

The lawsuit also claims that the City Council showed prejudice against the Christian faith for shutting down the event.

The City Attorney’s Office filed a motion to dismiss the case outright on Monday, Nov. 12. In that 30-page document, the City Attorney asserts that the plaintiff’s claims have no basis in fact, and that the argument claiming that the City Council succumbed to the “heckler’s veto” in ending the tradition also held no water.

Courts have consistently found that although people are generally free to speak, government has the ability to place restrictions on how and when, according to the City Attorney’s motion to dismiss.

It specifically references nearby Beverly Hills which found itself at the wrong end of a lawsuit when it allowed a menorah to be displayed in a local park after banning unattended displays.

“The city is a coastal, visitor-serving community with very crowded public spaces, including its parks,” the motion reads. “The City Council has appropriately exercised its legislative discretion to balance use of public spaces and ensure shared usage.”

Despite the loss of the displays, religious groups in Santa Monica have proposed an alternative plan to the permanent displays, instead opting to assign two-hour slots to various churches during the month of December so that the Christmas story can be displayed in public, live.

The Santa Monica Nativity Scenes Committee is not the only group to find itself restricted by the ordinance. Downtown Santa Monica Inc., formerly Bayside, an organization that manages the Third Street Promenade for City Hall, has had a Christmas tree on the promenade during the holidays for over a decade.

That practice may be banned under the ordinance, as would a menorah set up by the Santa Monica Chabad House.

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