Religious leaders are calling for church bells across Santa Monica to be rung at 3 p.m. Sunday to protest their lack of access to the scenic real estate where Christmas dioramas have been displayed for 57 years, City News Service reported.
Members of the Santa Monica Nativity Scenes Committee told Patch this week that they were upset their beloved display of scenes telling the birth of Jesus were reduced to just three booths this year. In the past, the committee has erected as many as 14 life-size nativities in Palisades Park.
But this year, the city received and approved requests from people outside the committee for holiday displays to be set-up the same time in roughly the same place in the park.
According to local media, in more recent years, the city has seen requests from Chabad of Santa Monica to display a menorah and from a secular group who displayed a Thomas Jefferson quote. Then, record number of requests flowed into City Hall this year, so the city held a lottery to determine assignments.
The drawing resulted in Joe Naranja, of Christmas Spirit, and Raymond McNeely, unaffiliated, getting up to 18 parcels of Palisades Park, with the Nativity Scenes Committee left with two spaces and one for the display of a menorrah, applied for by Isaac Levitansky, of Chabad Channukah Menorah.
Now there's a sign saying "Happy Solstice" on a protective cage at one spot, and most of the other spaces are just vacant grass, City News Service reported.
"We protested to the city council about the lottery arrangement and the people who were trying to block us," Nativity Scenes Committee member Pat Peterson said of those who have called the nativity scenes offensive. "This is a historical tradition that people look forward to."
City Attorney Marsha Moutrie wrote in an email that the issue is one of First Amendment rights.
"The Supreme Court and federal appellate courts have designated public parks and public streets as the classic public forums in which individuals have maximum First Amendment protection," Moutrie wrote, explaining that the city cannot choose which displays go up based on content.
Copies of the applications obtained by Patch show that all of this year's display organizers' were received in early February of this year. However, only the applications by Levitansky and the one made by Hunter Jameson on behalf of the Nativity Scenes Committee, are marked as having provided site map plans and other legal agreements, as required in the city application process.
The Nativity Scenes Committee is a coalition of 13 churches and the Santa Monica Police Officers Association. The nativity displays have been erected for more than 50 years, originally by the Chamber of Commerce.
Moutrie, in her email, wrote that city staffers understand that members of the community may not be entirely happy with this year's situation.
"Personally, it saddens me to think of any community members being disappointed by actions of the City," Moutrie wrote. "But, as you know, the City is deeply committed to respecting constitutional rights."
Attempts to reach McNeely and Naranja were unsuccessful.
The committee will open its annual display of its life-size figures with songs and a recital of the Christmas story 3 p.m. Sunday. The lighted scenes will remain on display through Dec. 31.