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Santa Monica to ban private, unattended displays at park

Citing December's dust-up between atheists and Christian groups over seasonal religious dioramas, the Santa Monica City Council has agreed to bar private, unattended displays in Palisades Park.

After hearing emotional testimony from about 30 people, the panel voted 5 to 0 Tuesday night to eliminate an exception that had allowed churches, synagogues, atheists and others to erect displays at the public park and leave them unattended.

Some council members said that, although they personally enjoyed seeing the displays, they wanted to head off increasingly rancorous confrontations over freedom of speech and religion that would cost the city time and money.

"I approached this evening truly saddened to be at this point," said Councilman Terry O'Day, who said he had taken his daughters to see the displays. "I enjoy those Nativity scenes. They're a great teaching opportunity."

He added that the hardening of feelings on both sides made it clear to him that the best way for the tradition to continue would be to shift the displays to private property.

"You don't need a crystal ball or the Holy Spirit to know where this will take us," he said. He added that he envisioned a "nightmare scenario" in which one group would erect a creche and another would put "the Texas Chainsaw Massacre version next to it."

The decision provoked strong responses from both sides.

"The city, on the advice of its city attorney, has abdicated its duty to protect the 1st Amendment's guarantees of free speech and the free exercise of religion within a traditional public forum, a city park," said William J. Becker Jr., an attorney for Nativity scene proponents. "The City Council members surrendered to the angry mob and in the process have announced to the world that religious freedom can be sought elsewhere but not in Santa Monica."

Becker said his clients would consider challenging the ban in court, unless they and the city could reach a suitable compromise.

Annie Laurie Gaylor, co-president of the Freedom From Religion Foundation, said vandals had shredded and ripped down the banner her group had hung at the park in December. The banner began: "At this season of the winter solstice, may reason prevail."

"Reason has prevailed," she said of the vote, "and we're delighted. We want to congratulate the local free thinkers who played the religious game and outsmarted the churches."

Assistant City Atty. Joseph Lawrence said a display with an attendant might be permitted during daytime park hours as long as it followed no-camping and other relevant rules.

For nearly six decades, life-size scenes celebrating Jesus' birth have been a seasonal fixture in the park that runs atop the coastal bluffs along Ocean Avenue. In recent years, displays have also celebrated the winter solstice and Hanukkah and have promoted atheism.

In December, Christian churches were readying plans to display their Nativity scenes when non-believer groups objected and applied to the city for their own spaces.

To keep things fair and legal, officials used a lottery to divvy up spots. The atheists scored big, securing 18 of 21 spaces, where they displayed information that did not celebrate the Christmas story. A Jewish group also won a place for a menorah. Christian churches won two plots, whereas in the past they had occupied 14.

Along with similar battles in Texas, Tennessee, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin, the controversy won national attention. Many Santa Monica residents argued that the traditional Nativity scenes should be preserved. Others said the lottery system was important to ensure neutrality. Then there were people who said they would prefer natural ocean views to any man-made displays.

City Atty. Marsha Jones Moutrie told the council that city staff members had received physical and legal threats as they contemplated ways to address the issue. Several employees received a form email that read: "Isn't the Internet a great invention…?! Not only do I know who you are; I know what you did; where you work; what you look like, and where you live. Sincerely, The Creche."

She said she had anticipated that the lottery would become increasingly costly and difficult to administer given the rising tensions. "Our research shows we can legally ban all unattended displays in parks," she said. "It would help preserve the aesthetic quality of Palisades Park."

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