After almost 60 years of displaying Nativity scenes in a public park, Santa Monica Christians may be out of luck: A judge yesterday tentatively ruled to bar such scenes, and all other seasonal displays, from public spaces. The fight between the Christian groups and atheists began a few years back, when a local atheist started putting up his own booth next to the 14 scenes from the Biblical Christmas story that were erected in Palisades Park. Last year, he rallied other atheists to his cause, getting a bunch of them to apply for spaces in the park. Atheists won 18 of the 21 spaces and a Jewish group won the 19th, leaving the Nativity story to be squished into two.
Things didn't go smoothly—at least one atheist banner was vandalized—and this year, concerned over the increasing tension and cost of the lottery, the City Council voted in June to ban all unattended private displays in city parks. The coalition of churches behind the Nativity display put up a fight, hence yesterday's ruling; a final decision on Dec. 3 is also expected to go the same way, the Los Angeles Times reports. "The atheists won on this," says a lawyer for the coalition, who goes on to compare the city of Santa Monica to Pontius Pilate. But the city points out that the churches can still put up the displays on private property.