Lawsuit filed against city for banning 6-decade Christmas Nativity display


SANTA MONICA, Calif. — A lawsuit was filed Tuesday against the City of Santa Monica after the city council voted to ban a nearly 60-year-old annual Nativity display bordering Palisades Park, in Santa Monica, Calif., on a bluff above the ocean.

The Pacific Justice Institute (PJI), who filed the suit, said that the city's actions to terminate the display were unconstitutional.

This Christmas, for the first time since 1953, there will be no Nativity in Palisades Park after the Santa Monica City Council voted 5-0 in June to pull the plug on a city exemption that allowed unattended winter displays along the eastern border of the park during the month of December.

Each Christmas season, for nearly 60 years, visitors of the Palisades Park in Santa Monica, California, were able to enjoy diverse displays—privately hosted—featuring different aspects of the Nativity scene.

For decades, members of the Nativity committee used an informal process through the city to secure permits for the first-come, first-served display spots. Over the years other groups would also reserve spaces, including several atheist groups. But last year, the city went to a lottery system as a way to ensure fairness in the process in case there were more requests than spaces.

The complaints led the City to opening up the display spaces to others interested in using them on a first-come first-serve lottery basis. In 2011 atheists collaborated together, and secured 18 of the 21 spaces. They left spaces empty, and filled others with anti-religious, secular statements.

"It was basically open to all comers regardless of the message," said Hunter Jameson, who serves on a committee that oversees the Christmas display. "There was always plenty of room to accommodate everybody—until 2011 after this lottery system had been set up."

When the lottery was over, Jameson said he discovered that 11 different atheists had applied for multiple spaces, with two of them winning spots covering more than half of the two designated blocks. The group with the menorah also won a spot. The last group to be accepted was the Nativity committee, but there was only enough space for three of the 14 scenes.

"We could have wound up with nothing," he said. "It could have been that three of the atheists had won space, or four of them, and left us out in the cold completely, but the Lord was able to fix it so we won some space so we could keep the tradition alive."

In the end, one of the atheist applicants who won a lottery bid ended up not using the space. A whole block of display space sat empty for the entire month.

The lawsuit, filed by Los Angeles area Becker Law Firm with PJI attorney Michael Peffer as co-counsel, aims to reinstate the long-held tradition, and restore the free-speech that has been banned.

"Stopping this tradition is one of the worst things the City could have done. They have, in effect, given in to the atheists' demands," said Brad Dacus, president of PJI. "Government officials throwing out traditional free speech opportunities due to fear of controversy is unwise, and unconstitutional, behavior."