As the holiday season kicks off, it appears there will be no manger in Palisades Park, on the bluff overlooking the ocean in Santa Monica. But there also won’t be anything else in the way of religious or anti-religious offerings for the holidays.
For six decades, the city had allowed an elaborate panorama of Nativity scenes to line Ocean Avenue. Last year, atheists insisted on equal access. Because the city was legally obligated not to consider content when it apportioned space -- even for the purpose of doling it out equally among applicants of different beliefs -- city officials resorted to a lottery. Atheists won 18 spots, Christians two, a Jewish group one. Christians, who for years had used 14 spots, were left unhappily to squeeze their display into two spots.
Not wanting to endure another controversial and costly lottery this year, the Santa Monica City Council voted in June to ban all displays in the park. But the Santa Monica Nativity Scenes Committee filed suit in federal court asking that the Christmas displays be allowed. A judge ruled Monday that the group could not install its display while the case is pending. (So possibly next year, depending on how the lawsuit is finally resolved.)
Obviously, Santa Monica city officials wanted nothing more to do with this brouhaha, and it’s understandable that they would see it as a problem that could be easily dispensed with by literally dispensing with any and all displays. But given how long the tradition has existed, I was hoping the city would figure out some clever way to allocate the space without an annual duel of deities and their supporters.
In all honesty, the life-size figures in the sprawling Nativity diorama had come to look as weathered and woebegone as the fight to keep them on the bluff has become. Maybe it would be good for the Nativity scene supporters to sit this year out, then redesign or, at least, renovate the displays and try to prevail in court. Eventually they might just have to find another spot, perhaps not as spectacular as Palisades Park but more welcoming.
After all, the baby Jesus had to make do too.