In response to atheist groups’ action against a 60-year-old tradition of Nativity displays in Palisades Park, the Santa Monica City Council on June 12 voted to ban all unattended displays from the park.
William J. Becker, Jr., a First Amendment attorney and lead counsel for the Santa Monica Nativity Scenes Committee, charged that the city “has abdicated its duty to protect the First Amendment’s guarantees of free speech and the free exercise of religion within a traditional public forum – a city park.”
“This act represents an erosion rather than an expansion of First Amendment vitality in America,” he said.
The 5-0 vote follows a period of atheist activism. In 2011 the city began a controversial lottery system to assign space for displays which led to disputes over the new rules. While Christian churches had occupied 14 plots in the past, they won only two in the lottery. A Jewish group won a place for a menorah.
Atheist groups dominated the lottery winners and displayed signs and banners attacking Christian beliefs. They also left a full block within the park empty, Becker’s law firm said.
Displays are normally banned in the park but for decades an exception was made during wintertime. The city council vote abolished that exemption.
The city council said many residents who complained about winter displays wanted to preserve the “aesthetic qualities” of the park. The council also said the lottery system is “time consuming and costly” and may become more burdensome because applicants have said they will “flood” it.
The council added that those who favor displays can place them on private property. It voiced fears the dispute would become more contentious and result in other costs to the city.
Assistant City Attorney Joseph Lawrence said an attended display might be permitted during daytime park hours, the Los Angeles Times reports.
Annie Laurie Gaylor, co-president of the Freedom From Religion Foundation, said the vote meant that “reason has prevailed.”
“We want to congratulate the local free thinkers who played the religious game and outsmarted the churches,” she said.
Gaylor said vandals had shredded and ripped down the banner her group had hung in the park in December.
Becker accused the city of lacking the will to solve the problem of accommodating “anti-religion agitators.”
He charged that the city “caved in to their demands to remove a universally cherished symbol of the Christmas season from its traditional place in Palisades Park.”