After more than a half century, Santa Monica Nativity display at Palisades Park is no more

Published: Friday, Nov. 30 2012 6:35 a.m. MST

In this Dec. 13, 2011 file photo, a man walks past two of the traditional Nativity scenes along Ocean Avenue at Palisades Park in Santa Monica, Calif.

Ringo H.W. Chiu, Associated Press

SANTA MONICA, Calif. — After nearly 60 years in picturesque Palisades Park, the religious community's traditional Christmas Nativity tableau has a new space in the industrial park of this coastal city west of Los Angeles.

The new locale was made certain Thursday when a federal judge dismissed a lawsuit attempting to preserve the Nativity display in its historical public park setting.

"The Grinch hasn't stolen Christmas. He has stolen our liberty. That's something that should concern everyone," said William J. Becker Jr., lead counsel for the Santa Monica Nativity Scenes Committee, which sued the city in October alleging a violation of free speech rights.

He said his client will appeal Judge Audrey B. Collins' ruling, which was expected after Collins denied the committee's bid last week to block the city's ban on overnight displays in all city parks.

The Santa Monica Nativity is the latest to get moved or mothballed by what is proving to be a successful tactic of secularists: forcing city halls to either ban overnight displays on public property or let all groups erect competing booths denouncing each other's beliefs during the holidays.

But religious liberty advocates contend the goal of free expression doesn't have to be an all-or-nothing proposition. "Cities can set up all kinds of forums for speech on things that are important to the citizenry," said Eric Rassbach, deputy general counsel for the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty. "It’s not like they have to have forums that debate everything. You can have forums just for celebration. That's fine under the Constitution."

Heckler's veto

Santa Monica's 14-booth tableau depicting the story of Jesus' birth was displayed during the holidays with little controversy until 2010, when Damon Vix, a movie set builder, atheist and outspoken critic of the display, decided to erect his own competing booth.

He placed a call to the Freedom From Religion Foundation and asked if it had any signs he could use, recalled Annie Laurie Gaylor, co-president of the Wisconsin-based foundation. They shipped Vix a sign that credited Thomas Jefferson with the saying: “Religions are all alike — founded on fables and mythologies.” The other side of the sign read “Happy Solstice.”

Gaylor said calls from people like Vix are becoming more common around this time of year. And so are threats from people who want the foundation to butt out of their town's affairs.

"The (calls) started to come in early this year because Thanksgiving was earlier," she said. "We have doubled our legal staff this year to deal with complaints coming in already and to deal with those left over from last year."

Vix, who did not respond to a request for an interview, had applied to the city for 14 spaces, but used only one for his lone display. However, the city sensed a storm was brewing, according to court documents. Anticipating a deluge of permit applications for the 2011 annual winter displays, Santa Monica created a lottery system for 21 spaces in the park.

The city's instincts proved accurate. Court documents state Vix and 10 others he recruited swamped the city with applications and won 18 of the spots, while two others went to the traditional Christmas displays and one to a Hanukkah display. The added booths doubled the size of the annual event, and emotions escalated.

According to the Associated Press, vandals defaced the tongue-in-cheek secular displays that payed homage to the “Pastafarian" religion's great Flying Spaghetti Monster or otherwise denounced Christian beliefs.

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