The Santa Monica City Council has banned all future nativity, anti-nativity and Chanukah displays at the oceanfront Palisades Park. The 5-0 vote on June 12 ends a nearly 60-year winter tradition.
The religious displays have been the subject of controversy in recent years, with friction rising between religious groups and atheists. Historically, these displays have mostly been Christian, with Chanukah displays appearing in more recent years. Atheist community members made a formal complaint in December 2010 objecting to religious symbols being displayed on public property.
The result was that in June 2011, the seasonal display places were put up for a lottery. Of the 21 plots given out, 18 were won by atheists, two by Christian groups and one by Rabbi Isaac Levitansky of Santa Monica’s Chabad. The atheist displays that went up later that year expressed anti-religious sentiments, causing further complaints from a Christian group, the Santa Monica Nativity Scenes Committee.
The Santa Monica Chamber of Commerce started the nativity tradition in 1953 to attract more visitors to the area. This year visitors will have to do without.
Levitansky, who organized the only Jewish display in Palisades Park, says he’s disappointed with the decision.
“I feel bad that the city council and the city attorney could not find a medium to have the displays in public,” he said.
But Levitansky says the ban won’t deter him from promoting his religion.
“We will be putting around 60 public menorahs around Simcha Monica,” he said, “and if one goes down, two will go up.”
Rabbi Jeff Marx of the Reform Santa Monica synagogue Sha’arei Am says religious displays should stay on religious property.
“Religious displays make sense to be on religious property,” he said. “I would put it in our parking lot, as I wouldn’t expect the city to host our symbols.”
Marx also says menorahs have deep religious meaning, and are not meant to be cultural.
“There’s nothing traditional about a having 17-foot menorah in public. It’s unnecessary; these symbols belong in our homes,” he said.
Even as the city council was creating the ban, the Santa Monica Nativity Scenes Committee, a coalition that includes 13 churches and the Santa Monica Police Officers Association, submitted a petition with 1,721 names, requesting that the ban be rescinded.
Karen Ginsberg, director of Santa Monica’s Community Recreation Division, which had allocated spaces for the displays, says the ban on unattended private displays will apply to all of Santa Monica’s parks, and will allow the city to continue to be religiously impartial.
“Under the first amendment, we cannot favor one religion over another, or one religious display over another,” she said. “This ban will help normalize the rules for all of our parks.”