PJI Files Santa Monica Christmas Display Lawsuit

The Pacific Justice Institute filed a lawsuit on Tuesday against the City of Santa Monica, Calif., which decided in June to put an end to a 60-year tradition of allowing Nativity displays to be set up in a public park.

Brad Dacus, president of PJI, told The Christian Post on Friday that it was "anti-religious intolerance" by some individuals that ultimately made the suit necessary. Individuals have a right to reject religious holidays, he says, but they should not be permitted to silence the religious expression of others.

"This park in question has functioned as a traditional public forum in the past, and no city can arbitrarily shut down a traditional public forum that has already been established ... The traditional public forum, based on established case law, recognizes the free speech rights of individuals to express themselves in such forums. This park is no exception, whether the city likes it or not," said Dacus.

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PJI tries to resolve issues without litigation and it takes time to prepare a suit, he says, which is why the complaint was filed at this time and not earlier. Over 90 percent of the cases the organization works on are resolved without a lawsuit, Dacus says, but in this case the suit was "absolutely necessary" to preserving free speech.

"We do hope to have this matter resolved, at least partially, prior to this holiday season," he says.

Annie Laurie Gaylor, co-president of the Freedom From Religion Foundation, told The Huffington Post in June that the religious people in Santa Monica were "outsmarted" by nonbelievers.

"They showed the Christian people of the city what it feels like to have a public park promoting views that offend your personal conscience. These views were on public property that were supposed to be owned equally by everyone," said Gaylor.

According to PJI, one of the atheists said, "The atheist groups had no real desire to set up displays, but wanted to counter the Nativity scenes in size and message."

The privately hosted displays have been set up in Palisades Park by local churches for the last six decades. In order to show it isn't biased, the city has also allowed displays that celebrated Hanukkah, winter solstice and even atheism to be set up in the park.

But in 2011, the requests for display space outnumbered the amount of space available, so the city established a lottery system that randomly selected which groups could set up their displays.

According to a report written by City Attorney Marsha Jones Moutrie, the results of the random drawing became problematic. Mostly those who "opposed religion" were chosen to set up displays, she wrote, and according to PJI, 18 of 21 available spaces were secured by atheists. Some of these spaces were filled with secular statements or anti-religion messages, while others were left empty.

"Controversy ensued. Some argued that the 'traditional' Nativity scenes, which had been in the park for sixty years, must somehow be preserved," wrote Moutrie. "Others favored the lottery system for allocating spaces but advocated standards for displays that would ensure aesthetic merit. Some opposed all private displays on public space. Many felt that the juxtaposition of religious and anti-religious displays was a distressing symbol of conflict inconsistent with values of peace and harmony that many associate with the holiday season."

The result of the conflict was a decision by the city council to eliminate private winter displays on the park's grounds altogether. Although they did so in an attempt to avoid litigation, Dacus said that "throwing out" religious free speech "due to fear of controversy" was not an appropriate way to handle the situation.

Moutrie declined to comment on the case.

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