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Santa Monica Council Members Struggle with Nativity Scene Controversy  

By Melonie Magruder
Lookout Staff

December 19, 2011 -- The nativity scenes at Palisades Park that have been a Christmas tradition for six decades may become a thing of the past after atheists nudged out most of the display this year.

Only three of the 14 displays in "The Christmas Story" were given room in the park after numerous displays by atheists were chosen by lottery this year. Now, council members are questioning the new system, which was instituted after a flood of applications. (See: "Santa Monica Nativity Display Nudged Out by Atheists," December 9, 2011 and "What I Say: Akedism," December 12, 2011)

One of the atheists' displays replacing a scene from the traditional nativity display. (Photo by Melonie Magruder)

Mayor Pro Tem Gleam Davis said she did not know if the City would consider a lottery system next year and questioned the future of any displays.

“If we cannot find another way to allocate space (other than through a lottery), we may have to consider ending the displays in Palisades Park,” Davis said.

"Obviously, there is tremendous disappointment in the community about the displays in Palisades Park, and I am sure we will address the question before allocating spaces next year,” Davis said.

Council member Bob Holbrook suggested that the program be stopped entirely and let the faith groups mount whatever displays they please on private church property.

“When the city attorney suggested a lottery was the only fair process, I knew we would run into this,” he said. “I suggested that the churches try to game the system by applying for more spaces, but they were sure they could prevail by asking for nine spaces. They lost.”

Both Davis and Councilman Kevin McKeown said their hands are effectively tied by federal requirements to respect all citizens’ First Amendment rights.

To favor one group’s message over another in choosing who gets display permits for public property leaves the City vulnerable to charges of discrimination, McKeown said, adding that the City is constrained even with applicants who are not local residents.

“We are able to give local preference for park and other public space usage for things like sports teams, because they do not involve constitutionally protected free speech activities,” McKeown said.

The use of the public park to display the nativity scenes has been questioned in the past, but not directly challenged, McKeown said.

“Court decisions told us that the original application forms could not be used because they required disclosure of the content of the intended free speech activities, which could have led to the conclusion that we were giving public space to those of whom we approved," he said.

"The city was forced to use a method of allocation that had nothing to do with content,” McKeown added.

The recent secular-vs-faith controversy engendered by Santa Monica's holiday tradition has called forth angry and philosophical commentary in press reports up and down the state.

The life-size displays sponsored by 13 local congregations had faced little or no competition until atheist organizations applied for permits to participate in the displays over the past two years.

This effort to maintain strict observance of First Amendment rights has led to a truncated version of the nativity displays, some with controversial signage that denigrates faith as “founded upon fables and mythologies.”

Angry citizens decried the loss of a beloved local tradition, and frustrated council members were left scratching their heads in contemplation of the next step.

Councilman Holbrook’s assessment of the new battle for free speech relevance was succinct.

“It’s mean spirited,” he declared. “The thing about free speech, is that in respecting one point of view, you prevent others from enjoying another point of view. No one was ever disrespectful before.”

Holbrook emphasized that he was not one to promote any one of faith, but that, like many locals, he was happy with the nativity displays year after year because “they were nice.”

For their part, the organizations that won permits for displays have restricted their messages to simple signage quoting U.S. Presidents. John F. Kennedy is quoted as saying, “I believe that in America where the separation of church and state is absolute.”

James Madison is quoted as saying, “The purpose of separation of church and state is to keep forever from these shores the ceaseless strife that has soaked the soil of Europe in blood for centuries.”

McKeown said he wished that the permit applicants that won so many spaces had been more creative.

“But we can no more reject the atheists’ use of the space they got in random lottery than we could shut down a political demonstration because their slogans were misspelled," he said.

When asked her feelings about the display’s message, Davis seemed to express the frustration of her collegues.

“I recognize that the nativity scenes are a longstanding holiday tradition here,” said Davis, who is an attorney. “I personally have no objection to them, but the First Amendment requires us to put aside our personal feelings and let all points of view have the opportunity to be heard.”

McKeown was troubled by the tone of intolerance, saying, “Maybe we just need to use this holiday season to contemplate what it means to be a diverse society, where people rooted in different beliefs find ways to work together to make life better ad more meaningful for all.”


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