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Nativity scenes banned at Santa Monica park after atheist dispute

Nativity scenes and other private winter displays will no longer be allowed in Santa Monica's Palisades Park after the City Council voted unanimously to bar them

Nativity scenes and other private winter displays will no longer be allowed in Santa Monica's Palisades Park after the City Council voted unanimously Tuesday to bar them.

For nearly six decades, private, life-size scenes celebrating Jesus Christ's birth have been a fixture each December in the park that runs along the coastal bluffs. In recent years, displays have also celebrated the winter solstice and Hanukkah and have promoted atheism.

Last year, after requests for display space exceeded the space allotted, the city held a lottery to allocate slots fairly and legally. Atheists won 18 of the 21 plots. A Jewish group that sets up a menorah won another. The Nativity story that once took 14 displays to tell had to be crammed into two plots.

PHOTOS: Battle over Christmas displays

Controversy raged, with many residents arguing that the traditional Nativity scenes should be preserved and others saying that the lottery was important to ensure neutrality. Some residents said they would prefer ocean views to any displays at all.

City Atty. Marsha Jones Moutrie told the council that the city had received expressions of concern about 1st Amendment issues, including letters from two "K Street" law firms, a reference to the Washington thoroughfare known for lobbyists. She also said city staff had received "threats, physical and legal." She added that the lottery would become increasingly costly and difficult to administer given the heated emotions surrounding the process. "Our research shows we can legally ban all unattended displays in parks," she said.

About 30 speakers testified for or against the displays, with several people invoking the nation's historic links to freedom of religion and others contending that the displays drew tourists who aided the local economy. Several identified themselves as members of local churches or as atheists.

Council members said the tradition should continue, but on private property. "We're not shutting down speech in Palisades Park," said Councilwoman Gleam Davis.

The vote was 5-0. Two members were absent.


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-- Martha Groves

Photo: For almost 60 years, Christian congregations from Santa Monica have organized life-size Nativity scene displays in Pacific Palisades Park along Ocean Avenue. Credit: Gina Ferazzi / Los Angeles Times

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