It would be nightmarish: a gigantic sign proclaiming the Holocaust didn't actually happen or Leatherface standing over baby Jesus.
That's what some Santa Monica City Council members imagined might be erected alongside 's traditional Nativity scenes if it were to allow all comers to put up December displays.
To guard against such a possibility, the council voted Tuesday night to ban all types of displays—even the life-sized Christian dioramas that have been placed at the scenic seaside park for the past 60 years. It's the only public park in Santa Monica where free standing, privately unattended displays were permitted each winter.
The council's decision came after city officials and church leaders spent months trying to puzzle through how the city might allow all types of holiday signs to coexist.
"If you allow displays in the park you also have to allow protests of the displays and in fact protests of the very displays that are next to you," said City Councilman Terry O'Day. "I feel like we’re setting up a ring for competition in Palisades Park and it’s one that’s getting nasty—and that’s certainly not the Christmas spirit."
Before casting the unanimous vote, the council listened to about 30 speakers, mostly Atheists and Christians from Santa Monica and across Los Angeles. One told them, "bah humbug!" And, while some asked the council to keep religion out of government, others said the ban would violate their freedom of speech.
"Nobody’s First Amendment rights will be trampled," responded councilwoman Gleam Davis.
City staffers reported receiving legal and physical threats because of the ban, which the City Attorney proposed earlier this year. She floated the ordinance in response to protests by some religious leaders upset by a new lottery system used to determine which groups would get to set up displays.
The Santa Monica Nativity Committee and .
But City Attorney Marsha Jones Moutrie has said the First Amendment prohibits the city from picking and choosing which displays to allow, and she alternatively proposed the ban. She said she also feared administering a lottery system would be burdensome on city staffers.
"The lottery process is very time consuming and we’re told should the process continue, there will be a flood of applications," said Director of Community and Cultural Services Karen Ginsberg.
The council initially to give the nativity committee and its supporters time to come up with a compromise.
City staffers said various stakeholders , including: keeping the displays but revising the lottery process and physically separating the religious and anti-religious displays to minimize conflict.
But none were amenable to Moutrie and the council, and in that time, the public debate polarized the community, said councilman O'Day.
"The conversation has gone in the direction of... demonization of the signs and really a deepening and hardening of feelings and some real nastiness," he said.
First placed in the park in 1953, the Nativity scenes are treasured by many residents, such as Lori Ayala. Director of in Santa Monica, Ayala has visited the displays for the past 26 years
"It has been an occasion of joy and celebration," she said, even for the non-Christian families of students she has brought with her. They are "simply a reminder of the truth of Jesus Christ."
In the past couple of years, the Nativities have nostalgic residents and church-goes with Atheists. Santa Monica's municipal code bars private unattended displays in parks, but makes an exception each winter in the park that lines Ocean Avenue. Michael Khalili, President of Atheists United, said the exception gives the perception that the city is promoting religion.
"This program happens for one reason. It started to promote Christianity. It started to promote Jesus Christ," he said.
On Wednesday, attorneys for the Nativity group sent a letter to the City Council urging it to again delay action on Moutrie's proposal.
“We strongly disagree that a ban on all unattended displays would pass constitutional muster, particularly if motivated by a desire to avoid controversy or legal challenges,” said William J. Becker Jr., a First Amendment attorney and lead counsel for the Santa Monica Nativity Scenes Committee.