U.S Court of Appeals Rules Against Santa Monica (CA) Christian Group in Years-Long Nativity Scene Battle

In 2011, in Santa Monica, California, several people entered a lottery to determine who would get to put up holiday displays in the 21 lots available in Palisades Park. Traditionally, the spaces always ended up in the hands of Christians because no one else wanted them.

But that year, most of the applicants were atheists. When all was said and done, they won an astonishing 18 of 21 spaces. Christians won 2 of the remaining spots and a Jewish person won 1.

These are some of the signs the atheists put up:

As you might expect, the Christians were pissed off. This whole “equal treatment” thing rubbed them the wrong way because they couldn’t drown out the opposing voices as they’d done in the past.

Caught in the middle of the “controversy” were city officials. They were accused of being anti-Christian when, in fact, they were only being fair to everybody by holding the lottery. Christians didn’t own the public space; they were just used to getting their way.

In 2012, Santa Monica officials decided to do away with the lottery system altogether. This was all too much of a hassle and, for a number of reasons, it made more sense to have no displays at all. No Nativity scenes. No atheist signs. No menorahs. It was fair to everyone, right?

The Christians didn’t think so. The Santa Monica Nativity Scenes Committee filed a lawsuit against the city because, they said, they were prevented from putting up a Nativity scene on government property, and that violated their First Amendment rights.

“It’s a sad, sad commentary on the attitudes of the day that a nearly 60-year-old Christmas tradition is now having to hunt for a home, something like our savior had to hunt for a place to be born because the world was not interested,” said Hunter Jameson, head of the nonprofit Santa Monica Nativity Scene Committee that is suing.

The Santa Monica Nativity Scenes Committee argues in its lawsuit that atheists have the right to protest, but that freedom doesn’t trump the Christians’ right to free speech.

“If they want to hold an opposing viewpoint about the celebration of Christmas, they’re free to do that — but they can’t interfere with our right to engage in religious speech in a traditional public forum,” said William Becker, attorney for the committee. “Our goal is to preserve the tradition in Santa Monica and to keep Christmas alive.”

Keep in mind this wasn’t a case of intolerance, or hate, or anti-Christian sentiment, or anything unconstitutional. The Christians never complained when they were the only game in town and had full access to the park. The moment the city said they had to share the space with other groups, the whining began. And when the city said no one could put up a display, Christians cried “Persecution!”

The judge eventually (and correctly) ruled against the Christians, saying the city did not have to provide public space for private religious (or non-religious) displays.

Again, that all happened in 2012.

But then the Santa Monica Nativity Scenes Committee appealed the ruling, because this whole “equality” thing was a travesty that needed fixin’…

Only yesterday did we finally get a decision from the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals. And once again, the ruling went against the Christians:

A three-judge panel… said the ordinance, which banned all unattended displays in public parks, did not violate the free speech rights of the Santa Monica Nativity Scenes Committee, the organizer of the displays.

“We do not doubt that the committee resents the way in which the city curtailed its traditional way of celebrating the Christmas season in Palisades Park,” the 9th Circuit said, “but its grievances do not state a viable claim that the city violated the 1st Amendment.

You can read the ruling here. It states that, even with a neutral policy that says no one can put up displays, the city still needed a good reason to shut down the lottery altogether and had to “leave open ample alternative channels for communication.” In both cases, the city succeeded.

They had good reason to shut it down:

[saying no to all displays] preserved the aesthetic qualities of Palisades Park and prevented obstruction of patrons’ views of the ocean… the City has long manifested its intent to preserve its parks from clutter… Ordinance 2401 simply made that prohibition applicable to all of Santa Monica’s parks at all times.

Furthermore:

the staff spent “hundreds of hours” administering the lottery system, and all indications were that the system would become more time-consuming in the future as the number of applications for space increased. It was permissible for the City to seek to alleviate this burden on its employees’ time.

Obviously, Christians still had plenty of opportunities to communicate their ideas:

[The Santa Monica Nativity Scenes Committee] can erect its unattended nativity scenes on private property, and it can speak in many other ways in Palisades Park, including erecting one-day, attended displays, leafleting, preaching, holding signs, and caroling…

In other words, stop pretending you’re persecuted. You’re not.

It’s the right decision. I could have told you that years ago. It’s just too bad the judges had to waste their time on this.

The Christian group still has the option of asking the entire 9th Circuit to reconsider the ruling — if they want to keep throwing away money on this case — but it seems extremely unlikely that this decision will be overturned.

(Large portions of this article were published earlier)

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