It might not seem much like Christmas time – with temperatures in Washington, D.C., approaching 100 degrees – but we got an early present courtesy of the Santa Monica City Council.
The California community decided recently to prohibit all unattended displays in a public park in reaction to the stir some of those displays caused in December 2011.
For decades, Nativity scenes celebrating the birth of Jesus were put up at Santa Monica’s Palisades Park around Christmas. When local residents objected to this apparent preference for one faith, the city set up a lottery system that gave all groups a chance at display spaces.
But when atheist groups won a majority of the spaces last year, conservative Christian groups agitated for a new policy that would limit displays and give religious organizations more likelihood of dominating the park.
The council sought a solution to the unrest over the exhibits, and predictably got some free (and bad) advice from the Religious Right.
In May, Liberty Counsel, a legal group affiliated with Jerry Falwell Jr.’s Liberty University, urged the city to drop the lottery and choose exhibits on a case-by-case basis, maybe limiting the displays to those “related to a December holiday.”
Hmmm. Wonder which holiday that might be?
Americans United and others urged the council to reject appeals from aggressive religious groups like Liberty Counsel. We advised the city to close the forum altogether or to keep its current policy, which allows speech on a free and equal basis.
When the council chose option one, predictably not everyone was happy.
“I’m saddened to be at this point,” said Councilman Terry O’Day, according to the Santa Monica Daily Press. "For one, I enjoy the Nativity scenes. [B]ut in staying with the current [lottery system], I feel like we are setting up a ring for a competition – one that is getting nasty, and that is certainly not in the Christmas spirit…. There are other ways to celebrate faith or non-faith.”
Ultimately, the council did the right thing by closing the forum, because it was causing more trouble than it was worth.
As the Los Angeles Times rightly pointed out in an editorial: “People still have the right to show up at the park and celebrate -- and show off -- their varying beliefs during the holidays and any other time. But the park also belongs to those who would prefer their public open spaces remain exactly that.”
If anyone feels like they want to see a Nativity scene at Christmas, many local churches will surely oblige. For the city to provide space for yet more exhibits just seems like overkill. It also seemed to lead to an awful lot of fighting.
Isn’t the holiday season supposed to be about peace?