There is more than just the Christmas spirit in the air at Palisades Park in Santa Monica this holiday season.
For nearly 60 years Christmas has been celebrated at the park overlooking the ocean with 14 displays of life-size figures depicting events surrounding the birth of Jesus Christ. Local church groups organizing the displays would install booths to tell the Christmas story in spaces allocated along the block, and another space would generally be reserved for a Hanukkah display in years past.
But this season the Nativity scenes had to be extensively scaled back to just three displays as other groups sought the space. An unprecedented number of applicants, including a majority of first-time seekers, sought space this year, forcing the city to hold a lottery for the first time.
Following the drawing, the traditional Nativity display received two spots – enough for just three scenes – and two applicants representing secular groups were selected to take most of the spaces available. The secular applicants have installed just two booths with displays including a message from the American Atheists and a quote attributed to Thomas Jefferson saying, “Religions are all alike – founded upon fables and mythologies.”
The situation has frustrated Hunter Jameson, the chairman of the Nativity Scenes Committee, who believes the other applicants that are against organized religion sought the spaces simply to cut down on the Christian display.
“We believe this was a concerted and organized effort to win space and take away space from the Nativity scenes,” Jameson said. “We think the people who oppose the scenes saw an opportunity to manipulate the rules to push us out.”
Jameson noted that the Nativity scenes are supported by 14 Santa Monica-based organizations that represent thousands of people, but most of the applicants this year, including the other two that won spaces, do not appear to be from Santa Monica.
Damon Vix, a member of the American Atheists and the Freedom from Religion Foundation, said he erected one of the atheist displays last year and worked with the applicants who put up the secular messages this year. Vix said he wants to ensure that other points of view have the chance to 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.”
The sign at the start of the Nativity display that says Santa Monica is the “City of the Christmas Story” is inflammatory to non-Christians, Vix argues, and the secular groups hope to express their views like the Christians have over the years.
“We are just as important and we are going to be vocal,” Vix said.
The park spaces along two blocks of Ocean Avenue were typically distributed on a first-come first-served basis but due to the number of applications this year, the city created the lottery to objectively allocate the spaces, said Barbara Stinchfield, director of the Community and Cultural Services Department.
While the city has the ability to regulate things like the time and place of activities in public parks, it can’t regulate the displays based on their content according to the U.S. Constitution, Stinchfield noted.
“Those individuals are protected under the First Amendment,” she said.
Jameson said he does not object to other people wanting to express their different views or beliefs at the park. However, he believes it is not fair that the atheist groups have used very few of their spaces for displays, which has caused the Nativity groups to limit their message.
“I have no objection to other people exercising their freedom of speech. What I’m objecting to is a small group of people hogging space and not using it to express their views,” Jameson said. “It just seems to us that this suggests the main goal of these people was to push us off the block rather than mount a full fledged display of their own.”
Some supporters of the longstanding Christmastime displays were disappointed to learn that a shortened version of the scenes had to be placed this season because of competition.
“Limiting the committee to only three booths is like selecting three random scenes from ‘Raiders of the Lost Ark’ – it just doesn’t do the story justice,” Santa Monica resident Eric Cooper wrote in a letter to the editor of The Argonaut.
Vix disputed the argument that the secular groups are not expressing a viewpoint by leaving a majority of their spaces vacant.
“By not putting up displays on nine of our spaces, we are making a statement that the park is better served as a park without displays,” he said.
In response to the complaint that the atheist groups are not from Santa Monica, Vix, a Burbank resident, said he has worked off and on in Santa Monica for years, has frequented its businesses and represents people who live there.
Jameson has suggested that the Nativity committee, which represents Santa Monica organizations, be given preference to using park space similar to priority that the city affords to local sports teams.
But City Attorney Marsha Moutrie said the city is not authorized to give a local preference for expressive activities like the religious displays.
“We give a local preference for things like the utilization of sports fields but we can’t give a local preference when it’s First Amendment activities,” Moutrie said.
The Nativity scenes started as a community festival to try to portray the spirit of Christmas and to encourage visitors to come to Santa Monica to enjoy them, a tradition that has continued to this day, Jameson said.
“It’s a community event that can draw people together from different areas and can draw generations together,” he said.
During the opening ceremony for this season’s display, which continues until the end of the year, Jameson announced a Save Our Nativity Scenes campaign, which urges the public to ask city officials to assure space for the complete project of 14 booths next year.
He is hopeful that an equitable solution can be reached, and though the traditional project had to make due with less this year, Jameson is proud the scenes have been a part of the city’s history for 57 years.
“I think it’s a sad thing the scenes have been cut down in numbers as we have, but we’re still rejoicing in that we’ve been able to continue as we have,” he said.