For the first time in nearly 60 years this December, Palisades Park in Santa Monica will be without any type of free-standing winter displays, including one that has traditionally depicted the birth of Jesus Christ.
The Santa Monica City Council voted 5-0 June 12 to no longer allow for private, unattended winter displays to be erected in Palisades Park. Council members Pam O’Connor and Bobby Shriver were not in attendance.
The council’s vote deleted the exception that has enabled such displays to be placed only in Palisades, which overlooks the ocean, during the holiday season.
Included in the ban are the 14 Nativity scene displays of life-size figures depicting events surrounding the birth of Jesus Christ, which have been installed consistently since 1953. Other winter displays that have gone up over the years, including one with a menorah and banners with atheist messages, will also no longer be allowed.
City officials stressed that such expressions of religion and speech will not be removed from the city, as groups could still erect booths on private property, as part of a community event, or with an attendant during the day.
“The ordinance before you tonight is by no means… an attempt to oust religion from the city or oust the Christmas story or Nativity scenes, and would not have that effect,” City Attorney Marsha Moutrie told the council.
The recommendation came after an unprecedented number of applicants for park space last holiday season led to the need for a lottery for the first time. Following the drawing, the Nativity scenes applicant received only enough spots for a much shortened version of its display, while applicants representing secular groups were selected to take most of the spaces available.
The situation became heated as groups supporting the traditional Christmas scenes argued they should be preserved as a whole, atheist groups said other points of view should be represented, and others felt no displays should be on public space.
Referring to constitutional protections, Moutrie noted the city can enforce time, place and manner regulations, but it cannot restrict expressive messages based on their content. In recommending that the unattended displays be prohibited outright, staff explained that the lottery is both time consuming and costly, and applicants would have the option of installing the structures on private property.
Karen Ginsberg, director of the Community and Cultural Services Department, said the city received indications that applicants would flood the lottery if it continued and added that the increase in booths could impact views at the park.
Moutrie told the council that the city has received both physical and legal threats regarding the decision on the park display ban. “There were a lot of expressions of concerns and a lot of claims,” she said.
City attorneys believe that the ordinance would withstand legal challenge because it serves government interests like preserving the aesthetic qualities of the park and would conform with the local coastal plan, Moutrie said.
But supporters of the Nativity scenes countered that the ordinance does not ensure that their expression of religion is maintained at the park and urged the city to come up with alternative solutions.
“The city has abdicated its duty to protect the First Amendment’s guarantees of free speech and the free exercise of religion with a traditional public forum – a city park,” said William J. Becker, Jr., an attorney representing the Nativity Scenes Committee. “The city lacked the will to come up with a creative solution to the problem of accommodating the anti-religion agitators, and caved in to their demands to remove a universally cherished symbol of the Christmas season from its traditional place in Palisades Park.”
The Christmas exhibit has brought a great deal of enjoyment to thousands of residents and visitors for decades during the holiday season, said Hunter Jameson, who was dismayed that the scenes would be removed from their historic home at the coastal park.
“It’s a big disappointment that the City Council did not see fit to meet its responsibility of providing adequate space to continue this nearly 60-year tradition and to safeguard our free expression of religion and speech,” said Jameson, chairman of the Nativity Scenes Committee, representing 14 Santa Monica-based organizations.
Responding to the possibility of installing on private property, Jameson said most private spaces in the city would not offer sufficient space for 14 booths while also providing public access for vehicles and pedestrians. He said the church groups will consider their options and are working to find other locations where their longtime booths can be exhibited.
Some residents at the meeting spoke of their appreciation for the Nativity scenes over the years and asked that the council ensure they continue.
“I believe the Nativity and menorah displays are a time honored tradition that should be maintained as part of our culture and heritage and as a demonstration to all that Santa Monica is a city that is tolerant and respectful of the diversity found here,” said resident Julia Brewer.
Thirty-year resident Joseph Fitchpatrick, said, “This annual Christmas display on Ocean Avenue has a long history in Santa Monica and is one of those things that give Santa Monica a unique and special character, a small town feel, if you will.”
Others argued that other beliefs have not been adequately represented and continuing the winter displays would only cause more confusion and conflict.
“A lot of people in this country don’t subscribe to the Christian faith, and I think we should abolish it,” said atheist Jeremiah Adler. “It’s become more trouble than it’s worth.”
City Councilman Terry O’Day said he was saddened to be at the point of discontinuing the park displays, recalling how they were a great teaching opportunity when he brought his daughters to the exhibit. But continued competition for spaces could lead to having offensive displays, he said.
“I feel like we’re setting up a ring for competition in Palisades Park and it’s one that’s getting nasty, and that’s certainly not in the Christmas spirit,” O’Day said.
Mayor Pro Tem Gleam Davis explained that the ordinance is not for banning the Nativity scenes from the park but rather free-standing, unattended displays, and she stressed that no one’s First Amendment rights will be trampled by the action.
“I understand that for many people they are a much beloved tradition, but the fact of the matter is that we have many traditions that as the law has evolved, we have had to let go simply because they favor one voice over another,” Davis said.
Councilman Kevin McKeown said that was evolving with the lottery was the antithesis of what many wish to celebrate – peace and good will. While he voted to support the recommendation, McKeown said the action will allow for the city tradition to continue in a meaningful way.
“We on the council grappled with this for four months, delaying a decision in hope that a better option might be presented. None was, so I voted to continue the tradition in a way that families and their children can enjoy: on religious or other private property, rather than in Palisades Park,” McKeown said.