The nearly 60-year tradition of a Nativity scene displayed at a park and hosted by a coalition of churches in Santa Monica, Calif., has ended after a federal judge ruled on Monday that the city can ban such displays. A controversy over the display about the birth of Jesus at Palisades Park erupted last Christmas season when an atheist group "manipulated" the city's lottery system for spaces, according to a nonprofit, resulting in only two booths for the Christian group that normally uses 14 booths for the various Nativity-related scenes.
"It's a very sad day when a small number of people with an axe to grind, people who do not like Christianity, and who do not like God, are able to prevail by manipulating rules to censor our message from the public place where it has been displayed for the enjoyment of millions of people for nearly 60 years," Hunter Jameson, head of the nonprofit Santa Monica Nativity Scene Committee, told The Christian Post Monday.
"It's even sadder that a city government would allow itself to go along with this effort to try to snuff out a message that a small group of people did not agree with," Jameson added.
Judge Audrey B. Collins denied a request from the committee to erect the large displays primarily on the grounds that the city's administration was overburdened with the permit process for the displays, according to William Becker, the group's lawyer. A temporary injunction to allow the displays to go up this Christmas season was not allowed.
"She claimed that they had proved that the primary reason for banning the displays on a permanent basis was due to the heavy administrative task work that city staff would have to do in accepting applications for permits," Becker told CP. "There is no evidence on the record. The system was being gamed by the atheists. The only reason it was burdensome last year was because the atheists and their allies flooded city hall with permits (requests) in order to get the very result they got today."
Behind the trouble in Santa Monica is a member of the American Atheists, Damon Vix, who applied for and was granted a booth in Palisades Park alongside the Nativity display three years ago. He erected a sign quoting Thomas Jefferson: "Religions are all alike – founded on fables and mythologies." Another sign read, "Happy Solstice."
Last Christmas season, there were 13 individuals who entered the race for the 21 spaces available at the park, that has an ocean view, rather than the usual three. The sudden high demand for spots, especially by atheists recruited by Vix, prompted Santa Monica's City Hall to implement a random lottery system to determine who would have access to the spots. This left the Nativity Committee with only two spaces on which they were able to put up only three of the usual 14 scenes.
The atheists used half their spaces, displaying anti-God signs, most of which were vandalized. This led the city to effectively end the tradition that began in 1953.
"The city decided that it didn't want the controversy that happened last year and so they decided they wouldn't have any scenes up at all," Jameson told CP after talking to his lawyer about the hearing Monday morning. "They just gave in to these people who didn't want the Nativity scene."
Apparently, Santa Monica officials are "very pleased" with the ruling, according the city's attorney, Barry A. Rosenbaum, as reported by the Los Angeles Times. Rosenbaum said the judge "understood the government interests and that [groups wanting to put up displays] have a number of alternatives to erect displays."
Another hearing is scheduled for Dec. 3, but Becker said it is only a formality and he expects the judge to drop the case entirely.
Jameson said that his group will be looking for other locations to display the large and intricate Nativity scenes. However, geographically, finding space in the densely populated area of Santa Monica may be difficult, he noted.
"We encourage others to pray and visit our website, www.santamonicanativityscenes.org," he said.