(RNS) A federal judge on Monday (Nov. 19) denied a bid by churches to force city officials in Santa Monica, Calif., to reopen spaces in a city park to private displays, including life-sized Christmas Nativity scenes.
The city shut down the six-decade tradition last year after a bitter dispute between religious groups and atheists, who overwhelmed the city's auction process for display sites, winning most of the 21 slots.
U.S. District Court Judge Audrey Collins formalized her ruling after it was given to attorneys in advance, The Associated Press reported.
William Becker, an attorney representing a group of Christian churches, said he would appeal. Another hearing on additional arguments is scheduled for Dec. 3.
"The atheists won," Becker told the Los Angeles Times. "It's a shame about Christmas. Pontius Pilate was exactly the same kind of administrator."
In last year's struggle, the secular groups got the right to use 18 stalls at Palisades Park, while two stalls went to traditional Christmas displays and one to a Hanukkah display, the Santa Monica Daily Press reported.
The atheist groups used their stalls to put up signs referring to religion as a myth or comparing Santa Claus to the devil. Most of the signs were vandalized in the ensuing uproar.
Beset by intense wrangling and even threats to city employees, officials in this California beach community of 90,000 people that borders Los Angeles decided to get out of the holiday display business altogether.
But the church groups fought back. They erected a 14-scene Christian diorama so they could sue over freedom of speech claims and seek a federal injunction to force the city to restore the event. They have accused the city council of caving in to a "heckler's veto," the Daily Press reported.
"It's a sad, sad commentary on the attitudes of the day that a nearly 60-year-old Christmas tradition is now having to hunt for a home, something like our savior had to hunt for a place to be born because the world was not interested," said Hunter Jameson, head of the nonprofit Santa Monica Nativity Scenes Committee that is suing, the AP reported.
The city responded to the legal maneuvering with a motion noting that Santa Monica is "a coastal, visitor-serving community with very crowded public spaces, including its parks."
The motion argues that the council "appropriately exercised its legislative discretion to balance use of public spaces and ensure shared usage."
The atheist groups, for their part, sat out the court fight, letting the churches and the city battle it out among themselves.
"In recent years, the tactic of many in the atheist community has been, if you can't beat them, join them," said Charles Haynes, a senior scholar at the First Amendment Center and director of the Newseum's Religious Freedom Education Project in Washington, the AP reported. "If these church groups insist that these public spaces are going to be dominated by a Christian message, we'll just get in the game — and that changes everything."
(Doug Stanglin writes for USA Today.)
KRE/AMB END STANGLIN