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Nativity scene ban: “The atheists won on this'

November 19, 2012 |  4:36 pm

Santa Monica may bar Nativity and other seasonal displays in public spaces, a federal judge tentatively ruled Monday.

In a closely watched case that has drawn national attention, Judge Audrey B. Collins of the U.S. District Court in Los Angeles denied a church coalition’s request that the court require the city to allow Nativity scenes to be displayed in Palisades Park this year, as it has for nearly 60 years.

“The atheists won on this,” said William J. Becker Jr., an attorney for the Santa Monica Nativity Scenes Committee, a coalition of 13 churches and the Santa Monica Police Officers Assn. Standing in front of TV news cameras outside the Edward R. Roybal Federal Building, Becker predicted that the court on Dec. 3 would also grant the city’s request that his group’s lawsuit be dismissed.

PHOTOS: Battle over Christmas displays

That likely outcome, he said, marked “the erosion of 1st Amendment liberty for religious speech.” He compared the city to Pontius Pilate, the judge at Jesus’ trial, saying: “It’s a shame about Christmas. Pontius Pilate was exactly the same kind of administrator.”

Atheist groups praised the judge’s ruling as an example of the upholding of the separation of church and state.

“Religion is innately divisive and just doesn't belong in public parks,” said Annie Laurie Gaylor, co-president of the Freedom From Religion Foundation, based in Madison, Wis. “There are tax-exempt churches on every other corner. Why isn't that good enough?”

Charles C. Haynes, senior scholar at the First Amendment Center and director of the Newseum’s Religious Freedom Education Project in Washington, called Collins' decision “consistent with other rulings.”

“It’s all or nothing in these cases,” he said. “If the government opens up and creates a limited forum, it can't practice viewpoint discrimination. But it can say, well, we're not going to have any. ... There has to be a level playing field in the public sphere.”

Since 1953, the coalition each December has erected a tableau of scenes depicting the birth of Jesus Christ.

A few years ago, the tradition offended Damon Vix, an atheist, who applied to put up a booth next to the Nativity story. Last year, he encouraged other atheists to flood the city with applications, including a satirical homage to the “Pastafarian religion” featuring a representation of the great Flying Spaghetti Monster.

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--Martha Groves and Jessica Garrison

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