LOS ANGELES - Attorneys for a group responsible for exhibiting a 14-booth tableaux of Nativity scenes in Santa Monica, CA, every year is appealing a federal court decision dismissing the case. A notice of appeal was filed in U.S. District Court in Los Angeles on Wednesday.
The Nativity scenes were displayed for 59 years in Palisades Park. A lawsuit was filed in response to the city's decision last July to permanently ban private displays in the park.
"A city can certainly have a policy that disallows private, unattended displays in a public park, but it cannot ban them on the basis of an unconstitutional rationale," said William J. Becker Jr., a First Amendment attorney and lead counsel for the Santa Monica Nativity Scenes Committee. "In this case, the city feared that atheist groups would repeat their aggressive anti-Christian campaign every Christmas, adding strain on city staff processing applications to put up seasonal displays in the park. Rather than fight the unconstitutional bullying of the atheists, the city surrendered to their hostile tactics. The courts call that a 'heckler's veto,' and have said it is an unconstitutional reason for suppressing religious expression."
In 2011, the city implemented a controversial lottery system. That system led to disputes over the fairness of the new rules when lottery-winning atheist groups displayed signs and banners attacking Christian beliefs and left a full block within the park empty.
The Nativity Scenes group tried without success to stop the city from adopting its new policy. U.S. District Court Judge Audrey B. Collins sided with the city's argument that additional administrative burdens caused by the atheist groups justified the ban.
Becker stated that the court's decision turns the First Amendment on its head. "Imagine if the city decided to ban all public expression out of fear it would cause additional strain on its police services because a few groups wanted to stir trouble," Becker said. "The First Amendment exists specifically to safeguard such threats to protected speech activities, and the city's job is to protect the rights of those whose protected expression is targeted by unruly forces. We expect the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals to get it."
The Becker Law Firm is being assisted in the case by co-counsel, the Pacific Justice Institute.
Notice of Appeal