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Santa Monica postpones decision on Nativity displays

February 29, 2012 |  8:38 am

Atheists and Christians protested over a Santa Monica nativity display
The Santa Monica City Council postponed a decision on whether to discontinue its long tradition of allowing Nativity displays in Palisades Park.

Late Tuesday, the council continued the issue to a future meeting, but set no date for discussion.

In December, churches were readying plans for their sprawling scenes of Jesus Christ's birth when atheist groups objected and applied to the city for their own spaces.

Officials used a lottery to dole out the spots, and the atheists secured 18 of 21 plots and displayed information that did not celebrate the Christmas story. The controversy set off a raging dispute and generated a flood of complaints from members of Christian groups who said atheists were violating long-held turf and tradition. Other complaints came from residents who said they preferred ocean views to any displays.

City Atty. Marsha Jones Moutrie said displays in Palisades Park were "expressive" and covered by 1st Amendment protections that prohibited the city from regulating content. The lottery system, if continued, would prove time-consuming and costly for the city and would be problematic because applicants have suggested they would "flood" the process with requests, she added in a staff report.

Unable legally to "pick and choose," she said, the city should prohibit all displays and encourage community members to use private property for religious and other displays.

"The question for council members ... is whether to capitulate to a small group of out-of-town agitators that want to censor the Santa Monica Christmas story and its message of love, joy and peace, or to direct city staff to undertake further serious effort to find a way to preserve this beloved tradition," Hunter Jameson, a spokesman for Nativity-scene proponents, said in an e-mail.

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-- Martha Groves in Santa Monica

Photo: Vikki  Hill of Santa Monica protests in December in front of an atheist group's display at Palisades Park along Ocean Avenue in Santa Monica.  Credit: Gina Ferazzi / Los Angeles Times

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