Atheists Sue to Move Christmas Displays From Balboa Park

Times Staff Writer

Arguing that the city of San Diego is promoting religion, atheists Friday filed a federal lawsuit asking that an eight-scene display of Jesus’ life be removed from the Organ Pavilion at Balboa Park.

The lawsuit, filed in the name of Howard T. Kreisner and the Society of Separationists Inc., comes too late in the season to bring the traditional display down before Christmas, but it directly challenges a recent city attorney’s opinion permitting the display on public property.

Stephen B. Thorne, head of the San Diego Chapter of American Atheists, said at a press conference Friday that the lawsuit grew out of a controversy last Christmas over city sponsorship of the display, which is owned by a private group called the Christmas Committee.


Chief Deputy City Atty. Ted Bromfield said Friday that, although he has yet to see the lawsuit, the city is confident that the Balboa Park display “meets all constitutional standards.”

Paul Schmidt, head of the Christmas Committee, called the lawsuit a publicity stunt and emphasized that the eight-scene depiction is only part of an overall display that includes a Christmas tree, Santa Claus and his reindeer.

“We’re not a religious organization,” said Schmidt, a San Diego insurance agent. “We’re strictly displaying a historical event (Jesus’ life) and apparently they feel we are some kind of a church. We’re not.”

Used to Be Stored in Park

For years, the display has been stored on park property. City park and recreation crews have erected and taken down the life-sized scenes, which depict eight incidents in the life of Christ including the annunciation, Joseph and Mary finding no room at the inn, the Christ child in the manger, the gathering of shepherds and wise men, Jesus confounding the wise men in the temple, and Jesus as an adult with the children.

A written complaint from the Jewish Community Relations Council last year prompted City Atty. John Witt to rule that 1987 would be the last time the scene could be displayed at the pavilion.

But the decision ignited a storm of community protests, and Witt immediately reversed himself, vowing to find a constitutional way to keep the creche in Balboa Park.

In September, Witt’s office issued a legal opinion that said the display could stay at the Organ Pavilion as long as it is erected and taken down by private citizens, is stored on private property and is not subsidized in any way by city funds.

In addition, the Christmas Committee must obtain permits for the display, which is also to include written disclaimers that say the scenes are not sanctioned by the city, the opinion said.

Jack Krasovich, deputy director for city parks and recreation, said the disclaimers are now on the scenes. City crews did nothing more this year than “directed” volunteers on how to erect the scenes, he said.

However, Krasovich added that the city continued to store the display at the Marston House even after the city attorney’s opinion was issued in September. He said the display will not be stored on public property after it is taken down Jan. 3.

Local atheists said Friday that Witt’s guidelines aren’t enough.

“When considered in its entirety, the Organ Pavilion display clearly exceeds the kind of presentation material contained in typical Christmas scenes,” the lawsuit says. “The inclusion of presentations of narrative detail other than the manger scene makes this display much more a religious advertisement than a simple holiday exercise.”

Atheists Want Display Removed

Even if the display were pared to events surrounding Jesus’ birth, the atheists said they wanted it removed from public property because it is unconstitutional.

“We don’t think public property . . . is properly used when it is used to promote religion,” Kreisner said at the press conference. “The fact that there are eight scenes gives us more of a likelihood of winning the lawsuit. It is a more flagrant violation.”

Filed in Kreisner’s Name

Thorne, a county mental health worker, said the lawsuit was filed in Kreisner’s name because he is a nationally known atheist and a citizen of San Diego. Neither man would say what Kreisner does for a living. The Society of Separatists is the legal arm for the American Atheists group, Thorne said.

The city has 20 days to respond to the lawsuit--a legal requirement that means the display for this year is a moot point, Thorne conceded. Legal notice won’t be served on the city until sometime next week, he said.

Bromfield said Friday that he has “absolute confidence” that the September city attorney’s opinion on how to handle the Nativity display will pass constitutional muster.

Bromfield cited a Dec. 15 decision by the U. S. District Court in Kentucky on a similar case, in which the American Civil Liberties Union sued the state over a creche at the state capitol in Frankfort.

The court held that the scene was constitutional as long as no public funds were spent for the display, no public workers used to put it up and that it had a written government disclaimer--all steps outlined in the city attorney’s opinion, Bromfield said.

Schmidt said he believes the suit was filed because local atheists are “starved for publicity.

“I don’t think this is going to help their cause any because of the hundreds of thousands of people who view the Nativity scene in Balboa Park and the rest of the Christmas display,” Schmidt said. “They were lined up three deep, and there was a line 300 feet long just to look at it.”

Schmidt said the Christmas Committee will give the city $150 to pay for the electricity used at the eight-scene display. The Salvation Army has offered storage space for the display, as well as the use of trucks and manpower to dismantle it after the holidays, he said.