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A Bah Humbug from the Ninth Circuit?

12/16/2015

Judge Gerald A. Williams
North Valley Justice of the Peace

Protests against Christmas displays have become a regular feature of the holiday season. Last April, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals ventured into this area again in a case called Santa Monica Nativity Scenes Committee v. City of Santa Monica, involving the Santa Monica State Beach’s Palisades Park.

Since approximately 1955, local citizens had built and had displayed a series of 14 booths, each of which was 18 feet long, that were filled with life-sized mannequins and decorations that depicted the Biblical story of Christmas. Putting up and taking down this display became a significant undertaking, and a nonprofit committee was formed in 1983 to perform these tasks.

In 1994, the city council passed an ordinance prohibiting unattended displays; but continued to allow the nativity scenes. In 2003, the council formally passed a winter display exception to its unattended display ordinance. This exception provided for a permit system that would allow space for displays on a first come first served basis.

In 2011 and again in 2012, groups of atheists flooded the city with permit requests so that space for the Biblical display would be either limited or nonexistent. The city responded by repealing the winter display exception and in doing so, abolished the ability of the committee to put up the Biblical display.

The committee filed a lawsuit against the city; but lost. The 9th Circuit held that repealing the exception did not violate the committee’s First Amendment free speech rights because it was content neutral. There were reasonable reasons to ban unattended displays that had nothing to do with the content of those displays.

The 9th Circuit also held that repealing the exception did not violate the constitutional prohibition on the establishment of a religion. In one part of the opinion, the appellate court acknowledged that the city council had ratified the atheists’ objections to the nativity scenes; but in doing so was not being hostile to the Christian faith.

There is no discussion in the opinion on the impact on a group of Christians who want to freely exercise their faith, in accordance with our Constitution, during a time that is recognized as a Christian holiday. Perhaps the atheists could have been allowed to put up their displays during a different month.     

Modern religious tolerance seems to dictate that people can practice their religious faith as long as they do so quietly, on private property, and in a manner that will not impact anyone around them. Such restrictions are difficult for people who believe that they are obligated to share their faith with others. 

Whatever your faith, I hope that your holiday season is a good one. Merry Christmas.             

Judge Williams is the justice of the peace for the North Valley Justice Court. His column appears monthly in The Foothills Focus.