Churches behind the nativity scenes that once appeared in Palisades Park vow to appeal a judge's ruling supporting City Hall's ban on unattended displays of any kind. (File photo)

Unattended nativity scenes, a more than five-decade staple of the Santa Monica Christmas season, are not coming back to Palisades Park.

The U.S. Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals unanimously upheld City Hall’s ordinance, which bans unattended displays of any kind at the park. The law had been challenged by advocates of the nativity scenes, who claimed that it amounted to a heckler’s veto.

Bill Becker of Freedom X, an organization dedicated to defending religious and conservative freedom of expression, filed the appeal. The group could file an appeal of the Ninth Circuit’s decision with the Supreme Court, but he said the group doesn’t intend to, in part because the Supreme Court recently declined to hear a similar appeal that Becker filed.

“We expected this to be a long shot in the Ninth Circuit and we threw a Hail Mary,” he said, “hoping that the Ninth Circuit panel would agree with us that the reason that the city amended its display policy was in reaction to what Damon Vix and his atheist cohorts did to make it an unpleasing and unpalatable experience every year.”

The nativity scenes were ousted from Palisades Park in 2012 after City Council’s decision to prohibit the unattended winter displays. The decision came after a holiday season during which atheists, including the aforementioned Vix, flooded City Hall’s lottery, winning 18 of the 21 slots traditionally allocated for displays.

Many of those slots were left vacant or filled with atheist messages.

The Christmas scenes had been displayed in the park since 1955.

Later that year, Becker, representing 13 local churches, filed suit against City Hall, claiming that the council erred because the ban was approved specifically to avoid controversy, effectively revoking the churches’ rights to free speech.

A Los Angeles federal judge dismissed the lawsuit, claiming that City Hall was within its constitutional right to ban the unattended displays because the decision impacted all groups, religious or otherwise, and provided groups with other ways to display their scenes.

Becker then filed for an appeal of the dismissal and two years later got word that it would be heard by the three-judge panel within Ninth Circuit in February. On Thursday, all three judges ruled in favor of City Hall.

Becker, who was driving to Phoenix when reached by the Daily Press, said he’d not yet had time to read the decision.
“We’re told that we should be a tolerant society and there’s tolerance extended to just about everyone,” he said, “but not to Christians and not to people with goodwill wanting to celebrate the Christmas season and the Christ-child’s birth.”

Hunter Jameson, a spokesperson for the churches, said he was disappointed but that he remains hopeful that a future council will change its mind and repeal the ordinance.

In 2012, the nativity scenes were erected in front of Watts Commercial Properties on the 2700 block of Ocean Park Boulevard, but for the last two years the group’s home has been Mt. Olive Lutheran Church at 14th and Maple streets.

Becker said it’s possible that in the future the churches would set up attended nativity scenes in the park.

“Right now the committee is simply committed to upgrading the booths and trying to raise money for that,” Becker said, “and at some point they will consider if they can raise enough money to make those booths portable or at least be able to hire a transportation company to assemble and disassemble them on a daily basis. That’s an option down the road.”

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