Santa Monica's much-debated Nativity scenes will be staged after all — on private property. The decision was hailed by advocates for the separation of church and state, but there was little indication the acrimony would subside on the other side, where an attorney pledged to continue to fight for religious displays on public land.
Less than a week after a federal judge finalized a ruling that Santa Monica has the right to ban seasonal displays in public spaces, Nativity scene organizers announced that they would move to a new location.
The display — 14 scenes of life-size figures depicting the birth of Jesus Christ — will open Sunday in the 2700 block of Ocean Park Boulevard, between Clover Park and 28th Street, said Nativity Scenes Committee Chairman Hunter Jameson. The scenes are scheduled to remain on display until early January.
"We are deeply grateful for the use of this new site to allow all of Santa Monica's distinctive Christmas story to continue spreading the message of joy, hope and peace found in the Christ child's birth," Jameson said in a statement.
When told of the development, Annie Laurie Gaylor, co-president of the Wisconsin-based Freedom From Religion Foundation, responded: "Well, hallelujah — praise secularism."
"This move is great," she said. "But it does undercut any argument they have that they don't have free expression. Obviously, they do."
For nearly six decades, scenes celebrating Jesus' birth were a seasonal fixture in Palisades Park, which runs along the coastal bluffs on Ocean Avenue. In recent years, debate over the displays had become rancorous, with activists submitting applications to establish their own displays, including a satirical homage to "Pastafarianism."
Earlier this year, the Santa Monica City Council — seeking to head off clashes between atheists and Christian organizations, as well as legal disputes that could become costly to taxpayers — barred private, unattended displays in the park.
At the time, city officials pointed out that those wishing to celebrate the Nativity, or anything else for that matter, could erect displays on private property. But Nativity scene proponents filed suit in U.S. District Court seeking to restore the Palisades Park tradition. The case drew national attention.
Last month, Judge Audrey B. Collins of the U.S. District Court in Los Angeles denied the church coalition's request to require the city to allow the Nativity scenes in the park.
William J. Becker Jr., an attorney for the Santa Monica Nativity Scenes Committee — who has compared the campaign against the nativity displays to Pontius Pilates' judgment against Jesus, — lashed out at the decision anew Monday and pledged to appeal.
"Judges are fallible," Becker said. "They are often motivated by their own ideological dispositions, whether they want to admit it or not."
The move to private land is "not a resolution," Becker said.
"Everybody has the right to use private property to express themselves," he said. "It's still no substitute for 1st Amendment protections that we are guaranteed to express our viewpoints in a public forum."
Gaylor, of the Freedom From Religion Foundation, said she is untroubled by the prospect of prolonged appeal.
"Santa Monica is going to win — should win, ultimately," she said. "This judge obviously did the right thing."