“Living Nativity” Scene Skirts Santa Monica Ban on Seasonal Displays in Park

After the city prohibited private winter displays in Palisades Park, a performance Saturday seemed to get around the ban

The battle over nativity scenes in Santa Monica – the subject of a federal court ruling last month – took a new turn Saturday when a group staged a reenactment from scenes of Bethlehem with live participants.

The "living nativity" scene was meant to skirt a city ban on private winter displays in Palisades Park. The prohition enacted this past summer followed controversy that arose last year when atheist groups began competing for display space with Christian organizations.

So, on Saturday, in the clifftop park overlooking the Pacific Ocean, a group of Christians reenacted the scene of Jesus' birth in the open.

Costumed, arrayed on hay bales and surrounding a wooden manger, they sang Christmas carols, including "O Come, All Ye Faithful."

The City Council's vote in June to ban seasonal displays in the park (PDF) was upheld by a U.S. District Court judge in November after a challenge by a Christian group.

Rev. Patrick Mahoney, director of the Washington-based Christian Defense Coalition, said the living nativity was strategic.

"We noticed that all the bans were for unattended displays, so we thought, what about a live nativity? What about having people there?" said Mahoney, a Christian conservative activist who was joined by believers from across the Southern California region, including children.

"The season really isn't about the fight," said Jeff McCulty, pastor of the Church on Pearl in Santa Monica. "The season is all about the glory of God."

Before the fight over the displays last year, the city had allowed nativity scenes in Palisades Park for nearly six decades.

Last year, atheist groups used a new lottery system that granted access to the park displays to erect signs that stated "Happy Solstice" or asked questions about religious "myths." The atheist signs far outnumbered the religious displays, and there were many complaints about the displays, according to the city's ordinance banning them.

A group that has fought to keep nativity displays in Palisades Park said it intended to appeal the federal judge's ruling.

Meanwhile, a lighted nativity scene is set to be opened to the public on Sunday at 2700 Ocean Park Boulevard – a location that is private property.

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