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No Room at the Inn? Not so in Palisades Park

By Gene Williams
Staff Writer

December 7 -- Once again, the Holiday Season is upon us, both mind-numbing and sweet, when children eagerly anticipate Santa, and adults brace themselves for long lines, in-laws and lame office parties.

But in a town as diverse as Santa Monica, with many people of many faiths or no faith at all, dare we say it’s beginning to look a lot like……


That’s exactly what it will look like beginning this weekend when the Santa Monica Nativity Scenes make their annual return to Palisades Park.

The 14 wooden booths that shelter the scenes will be brought out of storage from a church in Hesperia and driven out to Santa Monica for assembly on Friday.

"Peace on Earth," 1977 (Photos courtesy of the Santa Monica Historical Society)

Then, on Saturday morning, volunteers from 13 local churches and the Santa Monica Police Officers Association will install the painted backdrops, winged angels, costumed mannequins and fake farm animals that make their appearance each year at this time.

When they’re done, the biblical tableaux telling of the birth of Jesus will stretch along Ocean Avenue between Arizona Avenue and Santa Monica Boulevard, continuing a 52-year city Christmas tradition.

The scenes will remain up for viewing until the end of the year.

But religion is a touchy subject, and it’s easy to argue that religious symbols have no place on public property.

So why are the crèches allowed to go up in a City park?

Courts generally frown on religion in government-sponsored holiday displays, but sometimes make an exception when the significance of a crèche or menorah is watered down by surrounding it with secular symbols.

The guiding principle, derived from a 1984 Supreme Court decision that allowed a crèche to remain in Pawtucket, Rhode Island, is known as the “plastic reindeer rule.”

But the City of Santa Monica took a different approach that washed its hands of the problem. The City neither funds nor endorses nor regulates the content of the displays.

What the City did, in effect, was to establish a free speech zone.

So, while the County of Los Angeles may have to remove all those little crosses from its County seals, the private citizens who bring the child in the manger to Palisades Park each year do so under First Amendment freedom of expression.

But it seems that Santa Monica didn’t always have to deal with this Constitutional issue.

Nativity Scenes organizers regularly got help from the City during the pageant’s heydays of the late 1950s through the 1960s.

The mannequins resembling Jesus, Joseph and Mary were a boon to business, drawing thousands of visitors and holiday shoppers to the downtown each year.

The event got considerable television coverage and reserve police officers were called in to direct traffic. By 1960, Santa Monica began boasting of itself as “the City of the Christmas Story.”

Although the City never directly funded the scenes, they were effectively subsidized by City services.

Parking meters on Ocean Avenue were bagged so cars could drive near the curb for viewing. The lost parking revenue wasn’t passed on to the sponsors.

Nor does it seem that the sponsors had to pay for electricity or the closing of seven blocks of Wilshire Boulevard so that 200 singing children could march in yearly candle-lit processions known as “the Singing Cross.”

"The Singing Cross," 1968

Then the nativity scenes began facing a series of financial and legal challenges.

In 1979, after Proposition 13 budget tightening and threat of a lawsuit by atheist Madelyn Murray O’Hare and the American Civil Liberties Union, the City distanced itself from the pageant.

When the City announced it would no longer underwrite the bagged meters and wanted money up front, local insurance man Bob Gabriel -- who will be this year’s master of ceremonies -- stepped up to finance the opening of the scenes. Others, including band leader Lawrence Welk, joined in to help.

Money became tight during the next few years, and when only five dilapidated displays opened in 1981, some organizers felt the nativity scenes had reached the end of the line.

But in 1982, the non-profit Santa Monica Nativity Scenes Committee was organized to raise donations, and by 1984 all 14 displays were back up.

The City threatened to pull the plug in 2001, but gave the nativity scenes a last-minute reprieve of one year. The reprieve was extended in 2002 as City attorneys worked on an ordinance that placed the displays on firm legal footing.

The ordinance, which avoids any mention of religion, was unanimously passed by the City Council in 2003.

The ordinance notes that park space is a “limited resource” that should be kept “open and available to the maximum number of community members and visitors,” but adds that the yearly displays in Palisades Park are a “long-standing tradition (that) is valued by many members of the community.”

Therefore, “an area designated by City Council resolution” is set aside in the park each year during the month of December.

The “designated space” is allocated “on a first-come, first-served basis, irrespective of the content of the display or……the identity of the person or persons responsible…...”

Nativity scenes organizers are happy with the rule.

“We’re thankful that the City passed the ordinance,” Hunter Jameson, chairman of the Santa Monica Nativity Scenes Committee, said last week.

“It allows not only us but any other organization to have use of the park during December,” he added.

Jameson went on to say that another group will be erecting a menorah this year, but didn’t know what organization is responsible for that display.

He also acknowledged that atheists have set up a table and distributed literature near the crèches in the past.

“That’s fine,” said Jameson, who is a member of the Lighthouse Church. “Some of our people have had some interesting conversations with them, encouraging them and trying to spread the love of Jesus.

“And that’s the great thing about this country,” he said.

This year’s opening-day ceremony featuring choirs from local churches is set for 4 p.m., Sunday, December 11 in Palisades Park at Ocean and Arizona avenues.

A 20 foot stained glass window by Santa Monica City College students greeted Nativity Scenes visitors in the 1960s

Before the ceremony, organizers are inviting the public to gather at 3 p.m. on the Third Street Promenade at Broadway Avenue to form a caroling procession that will make its way through the downtown to the park.

The annual cost for putting on the nativity scenes is around $19,000. The money is raised through churches, businesses and individual donors.

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