Santa Monica will not be forced to reopen spaces at Palisades Park to private holiday displays—including Christmas Nativity scenes—a federal judge said Tuesday, according to City News Service.
U.S. District Court Judge Audrey Collins denied a request for an injunction that would require the city to allow the dioramas to be displayed at the scenic seaside 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.
In its lawsuit against the city, the Santa Monica's Nativity Committee, a nonprofit association of 13 local churches and the Santa Monica Police Officers Association, said the City Council's June decision to outlaw displays infringed on its members First Amendment rights and is "hostile to the Christian religion and our nation's religious heritage."
William Becker, the attorney for the group, told the Associated Press he will appeal.
"The atheists won and they will always win unless we get courts to understand how the game is played and this is a game that was played very successfully and they knew it," Becker told the AP after the hearing.
The Nativity display was first placed at the park in 1953.
In the past couple of years, the city began receiving an unusually high number of requests to erect all sorts of displays. To accommodate all of the requests and to be more inclusive, it held a lottery in 2011.
But the Nativity Committee, which in the past had been allocated 14 spaces each year, was awarded only three plots. The other winners posted signs such as one that read "Happy Solstice" while most of the other spaces were never decorated.
In adopting the ban, city leaders said they feared allowing all comers, regardless of their messaging, could lead to further conflict and "nastiness" in the community.
City Attorney Marsha Jones Moutrie has argued the First Amendment prohibits the city from picking and choosing which displays to allow.
While "the law doesn’t require us to take the step that the staff has proposed here, and we are within our legal right to continue the program as we have done it... I feel like we’re setting up a ring for a competition in Palisades Park," City Councilman Terry O'Day said at the time. "And it’s one that’s getting nasty."
Barry Rosenbaum of the Santa Monica City Attorney's Office said outside court that judge 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.
— City News Service contributed to this report.