September 2012 Church & State | People & Events

In an effort to defuse a simmering controversy over holiday religious displays, the Santa Monica City Council has decided to prohibit all unattended exhibits in a public park this year.

For decades, Nativity scenes celebrating the birth of Jesus were erected in Santa Monica’s Palisades Park at 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 atheists 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 received bad advice from the Religious Right when Liberty Counsel, a legal group affiliated with Jerry Falwell Jr.’s Liberty University, weighed in. Liberty Counsel urged the city to drop the lottery and choose exhibits on a case-by-case basis and implied that displays may be limited to those “related to a December holiday.”

The Religious Right group’s obvious attempt to promote a sectarian agenda drew a response from Americans United. AU (and other groups) urged the council to reject Liberty Counsel’s approach. AU advised the city to close the forum altogether or to keep its current policy, which allows speech on a free and equal basis.

The council chose to close the forum.

Americans United applauded the city’s decision.

As AU Communications Association Simon Brown wrote on the “Wall of Separation” blog, “If people feel 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.”