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Nativity Scene Barred From Santa Monica Park

By Deanne Katz, Esq. on November 21, 2012 | Last updated on March 21, 2019

The issue of cities putting up Nativity scenes comes up every holiday season, but in Santa Monica, Calif., a judge has reached a decision.

The issue generally involves non-religious groups protesting a religious display on public property. But in this case, the city of Santa Monica was the one that barred the Nativity display in Palisades Park, a yearly tradition since the 1950s, the Los Angeles Times reports.

Local religious groups sued to try force the city to allow the unattended displays to continue. But it doesn't look like they'll be getting their Nativity scene back this year, according to NBC News.

The issue started last year when requests for display spots in Palisades Park outnumbered the spots available. To fairly distribute the spots, the city instituted a lottery system.

But when the lottery was drawn, atheist groups received 18 of the 21 spots, the LA Times reports. Another spot went to a Jewish group, leaving only two spaces for the Nativity scene. In past years, the Nativity display had taken up 14 spaces.

Controversy over the lottery system and its results prompted the city to discontinue the display program entirely in an effort to limit disputes. But the Nativity group took them to court, claiming infringement of free speech.

Contrary to popular belief, government officials can place limits on free speech so long as those limitations are content-neutral and limited to time, place, and manner restrictions.

Restrictions on speech in public places must apply equally to all groups and be narrowly tailored so that they don't restrict any more speech than necessary.

After weighing the city's interest in limiting disputes and the group's interest in displaying the Nativity scene, the judge sided with the city. The group can still display its Nativity scene in other areas of Santa Monica, as long as it's on private property.

The fact that the ban applies to all groups and doesn't stop the Nativity scene from being displayed elsewhere probably helped the city in its case.

So far the ruling is only tentative, and the judge will hear additional arguments Dec. 3. But unless the Nativity group offers some new arguments, Palisades Park will likely remain free of all displays -- religious and non-religious -- this holiday season.

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