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Santa Monica Council Bans Holiday Displays  


By Jason Islas
Staff Writer

June 15, 2012 -- The City Council ended a 60-year-old Santa Monica tradition when it unanimously voted Tuesday to no longer allow winter displays in Palisade Park.

After listening to public testimony that stretched over two meetings, the council decided to strike the exception in Santa Monica's municipal code that allows unattended, free-standing structures in Palisades Park in the month of December.

The 5 to 0 vote effectively eliminates the holiday displays illustrating the Christmas story that have lined the park every winter since the 1950s until they were nudged out last year by atheist groups who applied for and won most of the display spots.

“I wish that there was another alternative that... passed constitutional muster,” said Mayor Richard Bloom, adding that the City faced two choices -- keep the lottery system or eliminate the structures altogether.

“We will not be silencing expression by any action we take here today,”

After it began receiving more applications than could be accommodated, City officials had tried to make the displays work by introducing a system that would allow any individual or organization to apply for a space awarded based on a lottery system.

The system sparked a major controversy last year when 18 of the 21 plots were awarded to atheist groups that either displayed anti-religious statements or left the display spaces empty.

“I don't think there was a single person who wrote to us or who came to either of the very lengthy hearings who actively advocated for continuing the lottery system, and I think that to me says a lot,” Bloom said, adding that the lottery system had failed.

Staff agreed that the lottery system had failed and had become increasingly time-consuming after applicants began flooding the system.”

Some groups have urged the City to ban negative displays or signs that disparage a religion's beliefs, but City officials maintain such a ban would not be upheld in court.

The matter remains a profoundly controversial one, as illustrated by the public comments made at Tuesday's meeting.

“It's a deeper matter going on,” one resident said, adding that banning the displays would stifle freedom of speech and religion.

But some thought that City property was no place for religious, philosophical, or atheistic pronouncements.

“The city should've never allowed the displays in the first place,” said another resident.

Frank Gruber, former columnist for The Lookout and a candidate for City Council, said the council's cautious approah would work against the goals of advancing free speech.

“If you decide to be neutral, to be fair, to ban all these expressions from the park, it'd be like Solomon being neutral by cutting the baby in half,” he said.

Banning the displays would make one group of people unhappy, he said. But it would satisfy the atheist groups who, Gruber said, sought to stifle the free speech of those wishing to display religious or seasonal images.

According to Moutrie, eliminating the displays would “bring Palisades Parks' uses into conformity with all the rest of the parks.”

Santa Monica does not allow free-standing, unattended structures in any of its other parks and only allowed them in Palisades Park for the month of December.

Some groups in support of keeping the displays have threatened litigation, City Attorney Marsha Moutrie said, adding that she is confident the City has the legal right to ban the displays.

“We believe the current (lottery) system is perfectly legal," Moutrie, in response to claims that the City could not legally ban the displays. "Where there is some disagreement, is that our research indicates that the City can certainly legally ban all unattended public displays in the park.”

Council members Pam O'Connor and Bobby Shriver were absent from the meeting.

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