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Group appeals ruling on banned nativity display in Santa Monica's Palisades Park

Published: Thursday, Jan. 3 2013 7:09 a.m. MST

A woman walks past a sign displaying an Atheist message along Ocean Avenue at Palisades Park in Santa Monica, Calif. Tuesday, Dec. 13, 2011.

Associated Press

Attorneys for a group banned from erecting its 14-booth tableaux of nativity scenes in picturesque Palisades Park in Santa Monica, Calif. is appealing a federal court decision that dismissed its religious freedom case against the city.

A notice of appeal was filed in U.S. District Court in Los Angeles on Wednesday.

The nativity scenes were displayed for 59 years in the park until the city banned overnight displays. The decision came after an atheist group put up its own displays, many mocking the religious booths that depicted the biblical story of Jesus' birth.

But the Santa Monica Nativity Scenes Committee sued the city in federal court, alleging its First Amendment rights to religious expression were violated and that the city caved in to an unconstitutional "heckler's veto" in banning all overnight displays in city parks.

A federal judge dismissed the case early last month, agreeing that the ban was fairly applied to all groups and justified because of the burden the display application process placed on city resources. The traditional nativity scene was moved to private land in an industrial park area of Santa Monica.

"A city can certainly have a policy that disallows private, unattended displays in a public park, but it cannot ban them on the basis of an unconstitutional rationale," said William J. Becker Jr., lead counsel for the committee. "Rather than fight the unconstitutional bullying of the atheists, the city surrendered to their hostile tactics. The courts call that a 'heckler's veto,' and have said it is an unconstitutional reason for suppressing religious expression."

Religion isn't the only constituent facing restrictions at Palisades Park, however. A recent Associated Press story said the city is considering limitations on fitness classes being held in the popular park.

"In recent years, fitness classes have become as ubiquitous in Santa Monica's signature Palisades Park as dog walkers and senior citizens playing shuffleboard," AP reported.

Other park users are complaining about fitness enthusiasts blocking pedestrian walkways, making too much noise, killing the park's grass with their weights and damaging its trees and benches with all the exercise gadgets they connect to them.

"Some people have also expressed concerns about people operating a business on city land and putting the city at risk of liability because they aren't carrying insurance," Karen Ginsberg, the city's director of community and cultural services, told the AP.

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