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Christian Group Seeks Injunction Against Nativity Ban

Santa Monica's new policy also bars secular holiday displays at Palisades Park. Religious group says its First and Fourteenth Amendment rights are violated.

The First Amendment rights of Christians were violated when the city banned all religious and holiday displays at Palisades Park, the Santa Monica Nativity Scenes Committee alleges in a claim filed Tuesday in federal court in Los Angeles.

Until this year, the group had continued a 60-year tradition of displaying life-sized dioramas of Jesus' birth at the iconic seaside park; it protested the city's June ban of the displays, which sought to minimize conflict with atheists.

In the claim, which is a precursor to a lawsuit, the group says the new policy is "hostile to the Christian religion and our nation's religious heritage." In addition to alleging free speech rights were violated, the claim also accuses the city of violating the Fourteenth Amendment.

The prohibition "lacks a valid secular purpose," "inhibits" religion and "creates an excessive entanglement with religion in violation" of the constitution," the claim states.

It was filed on behalf of Santa Monica's Nativity Committee, a nonprofit association of 13 local churches and the Santa Monica Police Officers Association. Its members are "generally comprised of devout Christians, who wish to proclaim their respect and devotion to Jesus Christ as their Lord and Savior during the traditional Christmas season," according to the claim.

In the past couple of years, the Nativities have divided nostalgic residents and church-goers with atheists. Santa Monica's municipal code bars private unattended displays in parks, but formerly made an exception each December in the park that lines Ocean Avenue.

To be more inclusive after receiving an unusually high number of requests to erect all sorts of displays, the city held a lottery for the first time in 2011 to determine assignments. The Nativity Committee, which in the past had been allocated 14 spaces each year, was awarded only three plots. The other winners posted signs such as one that read "Happy Solstice" while most of the other spaces were never decorated.

In adopting the ban, city leaders said they feared allowing all comers, regardless of their messaging, could lead to further conflict and "nastiness" in the community.

While "the law doesn’t require us to take the step that the staff has proposed here, and we are within our legal right to continue the program as we have done it... I feel like we’re setting up a ring for a competition in Palisades Park," City Councilman Terry O'Day said at the time. "And it’s one that’s getting nasty."

The Nativity Committee is asking the federal courts to award it "nominal damages," attorney fees and to issue an injunction against the prohibition.

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Paul Rich October 10, 2012 at 08:08 PM
In 1984, in Lynch v. Donnelly, the Supreme Court found no violation of the Establishment Clause occasioned by inclusion of a Nativity scene (creche) in a city's Christmas display.
judith brown October 11, 2012 at 04:05 PM
Ah, but here's the point: the so-called "Christian" groups triggered the ban themselves by their intolerance of the other displays. It was <i>their</i> "nastiness" that prompted the city to end this "tradition" that the "Christians" also played out in an incredibly tacky fashion (life-size mannequins behind chicken wire, ugh.) In this case, I must agree with Ghandi: When the missionary E. Stanley Jones met with Gandhi he asked him, "Mr. Gandhi, though you quote the words of Christ often, why is that you appear to so adamantly reject becoming his follower?" Gandhi replied, "Oh, I don't reject Christ. I love Christ. It's just that so many of you Christians are so unlike Christ."
SantaMonicaNative October 11, 2012 at 08:10 PM
The Nativity Scenes on the Palisades have been in existence my entire life. It was a tradiion to bundle up in the car and see them Christmas week. I will miss them. I felt the City Council's solution was no solution at all. Perhaps something can be worked out so that the majority do not have to suffer bcause of the bad manners and selfishness of the few. For people to coexist in this City, the rights of all sides need to be respected. Just bailing on the question doesn't fix the problem. The Nativity Scenes just represent the divisiveness growing in the city. The Nativity Scenes were primitive expressions of faith, yes they were city property which some argue gives implicit agreemnt with the subject but tht arguement is an extreme interprettion. Let the each group have a scene, divide things equitably between groups rather throwing the baby out with the bathwater. Please.
judith brown October 12, 2012 at 12:17 AM
Again, it was the "selfishness" of the so-called Christians who refused to share the space, and the vandalism (of the non-Christian display) that prompted the City Council to end their tacky displays. I've lived in Santa Monica for nearly 30 years, and when I first moved out here I couldn't believe that something that rag tag and tacky was put up year after year. So the so-called "Christians" brought the end of their tacky displays on themselves -- good riddance!
Paul Rich October 12, 2012 at 08:04 PM
You could have made your point in a far less offensive way, belittling an entire religion and the historic legacy of Santa Monica itself.
Wallie Cassid November 19, 2012 at 08:34 PM
I don't think there is any law about civilians walking in the park. So everyday during the holiday season, different members of the churches of Santa Monica could dress in clothing depicting the three wise men, Mary and Joseph and carry a baby Jesus. They could do this daily for a couple of hours and no one should have any complaints as they would be breaking no laws and it is not a stationary display. Just a thought.

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