Santa Monica: Holiday traditions hold strong for church groups
By Vince Echavaria
A longstanding tradition at Santa Monica’s Palisades Park around the holidays is not being held back despite a change in presentation.
Christmas had been celebrated at the scenic coastal park for nearly six decades with a series of free-standing displays that depict the birth of Jesus Christ.
That was until the City Council approved a law earlier this year that no longer allows for the placement of such unattended displays, which include a Hanukkah exhibit with a menorah and banners with atheist messages, at the park. The Nativity scenes, which feature 14 booths with life-size figures, were first installed in 1953 and were set to mark their 60th year at Palisades if not for the new law.
When a federal judge recently rejected a request by a committee of church groups representing the Nativity scenes to continue the displays, the groups pushed forward with a plan to erect the longtime exhibit on private land. After U.S. District Court Judge Audrey Collins dismissed a lawsuit by the committee against the city, the groups announced that they will present the Christmas story on the lawn of an office building in the 2700 block of Ocean Park Boulevard, near Clover Park.
“It’s certainly a wonderful thing to be able to continue this tradition for what will now be the 60th annual display,” said Hunter Jameson, chairman of the Nativity Scenes Committee. “It’s great to be able to help a tradition that has united generations, really. Although it’s not in the same location, which we deeply regret, it will be available.”
In an effort to ensure that Christmas still has a representation at Palisades Park, where it has for several decades, some churches in the city have launched nightly events there that will be held through Dec. 23 and feature live Nativity shows, Christmas carols and hot chocolate.
Some supporters of the Nativity scenes argued that their rights to freedom of speech and free exercise of religion were impacted when the city enacted the new law against unattended winter displays on public space.
The vote 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 applicant received only enough spots for a much shortened version of its display, while atheist 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. In recommending the ban, staff explained that the city could not restrict expressive messages based on their content.
Officials stressed that expressions of religion and speech would not be affected, as groups could still erect booths on private property, as part of a community event, or with an attendant during the day.
William J. Becker, an attorney for the Nativity committee, called the federal judge’s decision to dismiss the lawsuit a “victory for atheists.” He vowed to appeal the ruling. “Atheists are always saying that they are made to feel like outsiders because they don’t have displays to rival the Nativity scenes. Due to their religious intolerance and complete lack of respect for traditions our culture has long enjoyed, Christians are now the outsiders,” the attorney stated.
In her ruling, Collins wrote that the ban has left open many alternative avenues for the plaintiff to convey its religious message including installing displays on private property or handing out literature. “Because the city’s ban on all unattended displays in Palisades Park is a valid content-neutral time, place or manner restriction, plaintiff has failed to allege a violation of its free speech rights,” Collins wrote.
Collins’ ruling last month to uphold the city’s ban on winter displays was praised by the Freedom From Religion Foundation.
“A city has no obligation to create a public forum, especially when it creates divisiveness and acrimony, turning beautiful and serene park land into virtual Christian advertisements each December, and turning non-Christians into outsiders,” says a statement on the foundation website.
Hoping to see that Christmas spirit continued to have a presence at Palisades without the usual Nativity booths, Primo DeJesus, a member of the Trinity Church of Santa Monica, came up with an idea to hold festive events nightly near the Santa Monica Pier entrance up until the holiday. Working with fellow Trinity Church member Randy Bresnik, DeJesus, who noted the law only applies to unattended displays, spoke with other churches about holding interactive holiday events with people in attendance from 7 to 9 p.m. through Dec. 23.
The events will be represented by a variety of religious organizations, he said. The first event kicked off Dec. 3 with an olive branch ceremony, and DeJesus said the activities are meant to put any feelings of disappointment with the city decision into the past.
“We’re not going to go into the holiday season and have this hanging over our head in 2013,” he said. “The teachable moment for everybody is it’s okay to have disagreements but what’s not okay is to not come to a reconciliation.”
Bresnik, who has been a church member since 1962, said the nightly festivities will allow the local churches to carry on the Christian message in the park in a different way.
“It’s to show the rest of the world that we’re not a dead item and it’s something we’re going to continue on in the face of adversity, which is what Christianity has done for thousands of years,” he said.
Among other festive functions taking place at Palisades this month is a live Nativity display from 1 to 4 p.m. Saturday, Dec. 8 at Santa Monica Boulevard and Ocean Avenue. The event is part of a project launched by the Washington D.C.-based Christian Defense Coalition, which also focused on having attended exhibits in accordance with the law, said Rev. Patrick J. Mahoney, Christian Defense Coalition director.
“We decided to have a live Nativity scene so we could still affirm our religious liberties, First Amendment rights and also share the powerful message of Christmas,” Mahoney said. “We’re hoping to sort of ignite the spark for religious freedom in the celebration of Christmas in the park.”
The coalition has seen a growing hostility toward public expressions of faith in America, particularly during the Christmas season, and Santa Monica became the “cause célèbre” of the issue in 2012 due to its battle over the winter displays, Mahoney said.
Mahoney and Jameson expressed support for the efforts of city churches to hold other holiday-themed events at the park where the Nativity displays stood for so long. “It’s great to have Christmas celebrated in any and every way,” Jameson said.
DeJesus said that while the Nativity scenes have been based in Santa Monica, they have been enjoyed by people from throughout the Los Angeles area. Bresnik also spoke of their impact in the community and believes they can have the same significance in their new location.
“Families have come from all over to see them; we were known as the city of the Christmas story and we hope to carry that on maybe in a different location,” he said.
Jameson said that while Palisades Park was part of the scenes’ identity as their home since 1953, organizers are pleased to bring back the complete display in a new space that helps ensure it will carry into the future.
“This year we’ll have the opportunity to present all 14 (booths) and that is really a good thing to continue the full tradition,” he said.
The scenes will have an opening ceremony Sunday, Dec. 9 beginning at 3 p.m. and they will be exhibited until the first week in January. §