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.