Updated Monday, Nov. 19 – 12:30 p.m.
A federal judge sided with the City of Santa Monica at a hearing Monday morning where a lawyer on behalf of supporters of Santa Monica Nativity scenes in Palisades Park was asking for the annual Christmas tradition to be allowed until the outcome of a lawsuit is decided.
The Santa Monica City Council unanimously voted June 12 to prohibit erected structures to be on display at Palisades Park. Accordingly, a Christmas tradition that has existed in Santa Monica decades before many current residents moved into town will no longer be allowed to take place.
Specifically, the council’s action prohibited the display of nativity scenes at Palisades Park, a tradition that has been allowed by City Hall for nearly 60 years.
Until last year, displays depicting the birth of Jesus Christ were allowed at Palisades Park as part of an exception to the general citywide rule prohibiting the erection of structures in public parks.
For decades, City Hall allowed religious institutions to use Palisades Park to erect unattended displays during the Christmas season. Through 2010, the City Hall exception was utilized by groups or churches wishing to celebrate the birth of Christ as told in the gospels of Luke and Matthew and presented the popular manger scene in diorama form.
Three-dimensional statutes of a baby Jesus surrounded by Joseph, Mary, and various angels and shepherds attracted many onlookers to a popular stretch of Ocean Boulevard.
Other displays existed as well, promoting the Jewish holiday of Hanukkah, for example. There were also atheist and solstice displays.
However, as Christmas 2011 approached, the number of groups requesting use of Palisades Park under the City Hall exception far exceeded the space available. Local officials resorted to a lottery system to determine who would be entitled to set up a display.
The lottery was employed “in order to allocate display opportunities in an unbiased manner.”
“This was done to effectuate First Amendment requirements of neutrality and thereby avoid legal risks,” staff said.
City Hall’s initial decision sparked a controversy, particularly because the groups displaying nativity scenes at Palisades Park now had stiff competition for space. Due to the lottery system, “most spaces being allocated (were) to displays that opposed religion,” staff added.
The issue almost immediately becoming tense with differing groups hoping to put up a winter display of some sort during the Christmas season, City Hall began to contemplate whether to eliminate its exception altogether and extend the strict prohibition against private displays in public spaces within Santa Monica at Palisades Park.