For more than 60 years Palisades Park in Santa Monica has showcased nativity scenes at Christmas without complaint. At a hearing that we assume did not include a spirited rendition of John Lennon’s “Happy Christmas (War Is Over),” the Santa Monica City Council decided to discontinue the tradition after last year’s fiasco of atheist displays created a holiday media firestorm and placed the city smack in the middle of a “church-and-state” debate.
The controversy arose last year when atheist groups bested the lottery system used to assign the limited available spaces for the installations, commandeering most of the spaces for pronouncements of a more secular quality.
The city council struggled for weeks over the issue, punting on a vote at an earlier hearing and exploring some very creative worst-case scenarios for the future of the tradition–including a gigantic sign refuting the events of the holocaust or a picture of Texas Chainsaw Massacre’s Leatherface standing over the wee baby Jesus.
The city council hearing leading to the ban was a contentious affair: 30 speakers from both sides of the issue debated the implications on the separation of church and state and the First Amendment. In the end, the city council chose the ban over several alternatives, including a request by the Santa Monica Nativity Committee to reserve 14 spots every year for Christian representation. City Attorney Marsha Jones Moutrie said that the First Amendment prohibits from picking and choosing between displays. The city council also reported receiving physical threats in response to the ban.
“I’m saddened to be at this point. For one, I enjoy the nativity scenes,” said Councilman Terry O’Day, who took his children to see the displays, calling them a great teaching opportunity. “[B]ut in staying with the current [lottery system], I feel like we are setting up a ring for a competition â€“ one that is getting nasty, and that is certainly not in the Christmas spirit. â€¦ There are other ways to celebrate faith or non-faith.”
Those opposed to the nativity scenes spoke about the hassle and cost of administering the lottery system. There were those who complained the displays hindered views or found them to be offensive. Some expressed concerns about lawsuits and continued conflict within the community.
In the end, the city opted for peace on Earth this holiday season by allowing no one to display anything.