Will Santa Monica call off Christmas in the park?
Last Christmas, the Santa Monica City Council tackled a controversy over its annual display depicting the Nativity story in life-size dioramas sprawling down the Ocean Avenue edge of Palisades Park overlooking the ocean. Atheists objected to the longstanding tradition, arguing they were owed religious equal time. In the holiday spirit of fairness (and overseen by a city attorney) the city held a lottery to distribute the 21 plots of display space. Atheists won 18 spots. Christians won two. A Jewish group won one.
That only led to a mash-up of conflicting images -- Mary and Joseph here, the devil there -- and more friction. Christians claimed the atheists outgamed them in the lottery and were not even using some of their spaces but just keeping them empty and out of the reach of Christians.
So it's hardly surprising that the Santa Monica City Council is considering calling off the whole Christmas-in-the-park decorating altogether. The council initially scheduled a vote earlier this week. (Yes, it's early, but might as well get a jump on these things.) Then it postponed a decision on the issue until a future date.
You can't blame the council for souring on a holiday tradition that was anything but festive for city officials last year. To simply dole out the spots equally based on religious material would have technically been a violation of federal laws against regulating content of speech. So they were stuck with a lottery.
But erecting the Nativity scenes in Palisades Park is a six-decade tradition. The sight of the gargantuan, sweetly shabby figures in their settings lent a kind of small-town air to bustling Santa Monica. Now that the process has to be open to all religious comers, yes, it's more fraught. But we think city officials can figure out a smoother way to run the lottery (especially if they're starting now.) And the Christian church members who erect the Nativity scenes, presumably, now understand they need to submit more entries to the lottery. (Unlike the state lottery, this really is a raffle.)
In the spirit of the holiday, and taking advantage of the privilege of living in warm weather that allows a stroll in December, let's hope there's a way for all to recognize the season in Palisades Park.
Photo: A Nativity display in Santa Monica. Credit: Gina Ferazzi / Los Angeles Times