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Santa Monica to consider Nativity scene ban at park [Updated]

February 28, 2012 |  3:54 pm

Atheists and Christians protested over a Santa Monica nativity display

A raging dispute in December between Christians and atheists has prompted the Santa Monica city attorney to recommend that the city discontinue its nearly six-decade tradition of allowing Nativity scenes in Palisades Park.

At its meeting Tuesday night, the council will consider an ordinance that would delete language from the municipal code that allows such displays at the park on Ocean Avenue.

[Updated at 9:45 p.m.: The council late Tuesday decided to continue the issue to a future meeting, but no date was set.]

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

To keep things fair and legal, officials used a lottery to parcel out spots. The atheists secured 18 of 21 plots and displayed information that did not celebrate the Christmas story. A Jewish group also won a place for a menorah. That left Christian churches with three of their typical 14 displays crammed into two plots.

The situation 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 based on 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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Photo: Vikki  Hill of Santa Monica protests in December in front of an atheist's group display where Nativity scenes used to be at Pacific Palisades Park along Ocean Avenue in Santa Monica.  Credit: Gina Ferazzi / Los Angeles Times