Santa Monica Ban on Nativity Display Passes Constitutional Challenge

In the latest legal skirmish setting the border between church and state, a federal judge in California has ruled that the city of Santa Monica, California may issue a ban on a Nativity scene in a local public park.  For over half a century, Santa Monica had granted space in oceanfront Palisades Park to local churches who used the opportunity to set up a Nativity scene.  However, after a series of protests and outbursts created a spectacle, the city changed its law to forbid any display – religious or secular – in city parks.

The trouble with the Nativity arose when local atheist Damon Vix took exception to a traditional depiction of the birth of Jesus Christ that had been set up in a Santa Monica public park every holiday season since 1953.   In 2011, Mr. Vix led a local atheist group that set up signs protesting the Nativity and openly mocking Christianity by denouncing it as mythology.  In the days and weeks that followed, most of the atheist signs were vandalized, and, under threat of escalating violence over the issue, the city of Santa Monica forbid all displays in city parks, regardless of content.

Legal Challenge to  Nativity Ban

A coalition of 13 local churches and the Santa Monica Police Officers Association filed legal action against the ban on the Nativity alleging it was an Unconstitutional violation of First Amendment religious freedoms.   In the first significant decision in the case, U.S. District Judge Audrey B. Collins rejected a motion by the church coalition that asked the court to allow for the Nativity to be displayed while the legal challenge against Santa Monica’s ban was pending.  Judge Collins denied the motion, and in doing so provided a strong indication that the new law against public displays in Santa Monica is Constitutional despite the challenge from religious leaders.

William J. Becker, Jr., an attorney representing the religious groups, protested Judge Collins’ decision, stating that the outcome marked “the erosion of the 1st Amendment liberty for religious speech.”  Judge Collins disagreed with the church coalition’s argument, and found that Santa Monica had provided sufficient evidence to prove its decision to ban public displays did not target religion.  The city showed the court that its recent law banned public displays because of the drain on city resources, which makes the city's decision neutral to the interests of all the parties involved and driven by legitimate reasons unrelated to display content.

First Amendment Concerns

As part of the First Amendment, government is not permitted to interfere with the freedom to practice religion.  Known as the Free Exercise Clause, the relevant section of the Constitution is designed to allow religious groups the freedom to practice their beliefs without concern over government interference.  Throughout American history, the court system has been called upon to define exactly what the Free Exercise Clause means, and how it applies.  Following the standard set by the Supreme Court, non-discriminatory laws that either restrict or compel behavior are generally considered to be Constitutional providing they apply to both religious and non-religious groups.

Disputes over religious displays in public places are emotionally charged, and the case of the Santa Monica Nativity appears to be particularly sensitive.  While traditionalists may lament a ban shutting down a seemingly harmless display, the fact remains that the Constitution, while protecting religious practices, establishes a clear separation between religion and government that allows for cities to ban displays, including ones with religious themes, providing the basis for a law is non-discriminatory.  Parties challenging a law by alleging it infringes upon religious freedom must be able to show that the government action unfairly targets or burdens religious expression or practice, and in this case the Santa Monica church coalition failed to present a sufficiently convincing argument that banning the Nativity in public parks violates a Constitutional right.

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