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California judge denies bid for park Nativity displays

LOS ANGELES — There is no room for a 60-year-old Nativity display in Santa Monica’s showcase park after a federal judge ruled Monday against churches who had sued to keep the tradition alive amid a takeover by atheists.

US District Judge Audrey B. Collins rejected a motion from the Santa Monica Nativity Scenes Committee to allow the Nativity this Christmas season while their lawsuit plays out against the city.

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Collins said the city was within its constitutional right to eliminate the exemption that had allowed winter displays at the oceanfront Palisades Park because the change affected all comers — from Christians to Jews to atheists — and provided other avenues for public religious speech.

The coalition of churches that had put on the life-size, 14-booth Nativity display for decades argued the city banned it rather than referee a religious dispute that began three years ago when atheists first set up their anti-God message alongside the Christmas diorama.

‘‘I think it’s a very sad day when a tiny group of determined and ideologically driven people are able to drive out of a public park a tradition that has brought joy and happiness . . . for nearly 60 years,’’ said Hunter Jameson, head of the Nativity Scenes Committee.

The judge said Santa Monica proved that it banned the displays not to squash religious speech but because they were becoming a drain on city resources, destroying the turf, and obstructing ocean views. Churches can set up unattended displays at 12 other parks in the city with a permit and can leaflet, carol, and otherwise present the Christmas story in Palisades Park when it is open, she said.

‘‘I think all of the evidence that is admissible about the aesthetic impacts and administrative burden shows that this was a very reasonable alternative for the city to go this way — and it had nothing to do with content,’’ she said during a hearing in federal court in Los Angeles.

William Becker, the attorney for the Christian group, said he expects the case will be dismissed at a hearing Dec. 3 based on Monday’s proceedings and plans to appeal.

‘‘The atheists won, and they will always win unless we get courts to understand how the game is played, and this is a game that was played very successfully, and they knew it,’’ Becker said.

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