LOS ANGELES, Calif.–A federal judge in Los Angeles today denied a bid by a group of Christian churches to force Santa Monica to allow Christmas Nativity scenes in a city park.
The Nativity Scenes Committee sued the city of Santa Monica in federal court last month, seeking to restore the nearly 60-year-old religious display to Palisades Park.
The complaint alleges the Santa Monica City Council infringed on the committee’s rights to free speech and freedom of religion under the First Amendment when it voted in June to ban the Christmas display from the park. The display was first placed at the park in 1953.
U.S. District Court Judge Audrey Collins denied a request for an injunction that would require the city to allow the diorama to be displayed in the park over the holiday season while the case proceeds. She set a Dec. 3 hearing on a dismissal motion brought by the city.
The judge said the Christian group retains the right to present its Nativity scene on private property and other locations throughout Santa Monica.
Barry Rosenbaum of the Santa Monica City Attorney’s Office said outside court that Collins had correctly recognized that “there are multiple opportunities” for individuals or groups to engage in free speech at various other points throughout the city.
He added that the Palisades Park case was “content neutral” and had nothing to do with the religious content of the display.
The dispute stems from the lottery system the city had set up to award display booths. Last year, atheist groups dominated the process, winning nearly all of the available slots. The city then banned unattended displays at the park.
“This amounts to an erosion of First Amendment rights,” plaintiff’s attorney William Becker said after the court hearing. “Religious speech enjoys as much protection in public spaces as secular speech.”
Vowing to appeal, Becker said the judge would likely dismiss the case at next month’s hearing.
The issue, he said, “may be lost this Christmas season.”