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Santa Monica Nativity displays: Church groups ponder next steps

A coalition of church groups that has erected Nativity scenes in Santa Monica for more than 50 years is pondering its next steps after a federal judge ruled the city has the right to bar seasonal public displays.

William J. Becker, an attorney for the Santa Monica Nativity Scenes Committee, said he would consult with his "brain trust" to determine what steps the coalition would take if Judge Audrey B. Collins grants the city's motion to dismiss the church group's case at a hearing next month.

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

PHOTOS: Battle over Christmas displays

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 "Flying Spaghetti Monster."

To keep things fair and legal, the city held a lottery to parcel out slots. Atheists won 18 of 21 spaces. A Jewish group won another. The Nativity story that traditionally took up 14 displays was jammed into two.

A flap ensued. Vandals ripped down a banner the Freedom From Religion Foundation had hung at the park. The banner began: "At this season of the winter solstice, may reason prevail."

Last June, concerned that the lottery would become increasingly costly because of the rising tensions, the City Council voted to ban all private, unattended displays in city parks. The city cited other reasons for the prohibition, including damage to the park's turf and some residents' statements that they would prefer unobstructed ocean views to seasonal displays.

Council members and the city attorney's office said groups wishing to celebrate the Nativity, the winter solstice or Hanukkah had alternatives. They could, for example, erect displays on private property or station a representative at any display on public ground.

In October, the coalition filed suit, seeking to restore the tradition. At the time, Becker said it was "not the government's function to avoid controversy at the cost of fundamental rights."

Collins' tentative ruling in the city's favor Monday left both sides suspecting she might also be inclined to dismiss the coalition's case.

Speaking outside the federal courthouse, Becker said he and his clients might consider an appeal, perhaps next year or at some future time when the city government pendulum "would swing back and we'd be back in a sane society where people are tolerant and respect each other for their religious views."

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-- Martha Groves and Jessica Garrison

 
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