Santa Monica city leaders have put on hold a decision that could leave Palisades Park without a fixture of the holidays for the first time in nearly 60 years this winter.
The Santa Monica City Council voted Feb. 28 to continue a hearing until April on a proposal that would no longer allow the 14 Nativity displays of life-size figures depicting events surrounding the birth of Jesus Christ at the park overlooking the ocean. The recommended action would extend to all other winter displays, such as the longtime Hanukkah display and the more recent banners with atheist messages.
Supporters of the traditional Nativity scene setup requested that the city take more time to consider its options, saying that such a decision should not be rushed.
“We believe there needs to be additional time… rather than hurriedly pushing the scenes out of the park after having been there nearly 60 years,” said Hunter Jameson, chairman of the Nativity Scenes Committee.
City staff had recommended to remove all winter displays outright after an unprecedented number of applicants for park space this past 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 end result troubled Jameson, who argued that the atheist groups sought the spaces simply to cut down on the longstanding Christian display. Jameson was further frustrated that while the Nativity scenes are supported by 14 Santa Monica-based organizations, the atheist groups that won spaces are not from the city.
Damon Vix, a member of the American Atheists and the Freedom from Religion Foundation, said in December that he wanted to ensure that other points of view could be represented after the park has been used for a Christian project for many years.
“Our point of view is that the park has been taken over by Christians for decades,” Vix said. “It’s been a completely religious display sponsored by the city; it’s so massive and takes up a whole city block, and other points of view have been non-existent.”
Referring to constitutional protections, City Attorney Marsha Moutrie noted that the city can enforce time, place and manner regulations, but it cannot restrict any expressive display based on the identity of the applicant or its content.
With competition for spaces likely to continue in the future, the city could keep holding a lottery, or eliminate the exception that has allowed for winter displays in Palisades Park, staff said. Prohibiting the displays was recommended to the council, as staff explained that the lottery is time consuming and costly, and residents would rather preserve the aesthetic nature of the park.
Groups that wish to continue with their expressive messages during the holidays can seek to do so on private property, city officials said.
Jameson was disappointed at the recommendation to outright remove any displays from the park, which he feels would be a terrible loss of a longstanding community tradition.
“We feel it would be an unfortunate and precipitous move that would affect many people unfavorably and deal a blow to a beloved tradition that has been a part of Christmas for many Santa Monicans and many visitors for nearly 60 years,” Jameson said.
Nativity committee supporters worked feverishly to encourage the city to postpone the decision and collected more than 1,000 petition signatures urging the city to find a way to restore the scenes, he said.
Jameson believes there are other alternatives that would enable the scene displays to remain without a lottery, but more time is needed to explore potential options.
Randy Bresnick, a member of the Trinity Baptist Church, suggested that the council explore other solutions such as an expansion of the park area for allocated space to accommodate different types of displays.
Santa Monica pastor Steve Snook said the city should not be in a hurry to take action.
“Let’s figure out a way to make this work,” he told the council.
The future of the Nativity scenes “could be cloudy” if Palisades is no longer a possibility, Jameson said. Most private spaces in the city would not offer the amount of space required to put up 14 booths while also providing ready public access for vehicles and pedestrians, he noted.
“We will work with the city if at all possible to fight (this decision),” Jameson said.