Frederic J. Brown / AFP - Getty Images file
In this file photo taken on Dec. 17, 2011, pedestrians walk past a Christmas display in Santa Monica, California.
Efforts to force Santa Monica, Calif., to reopen spaces in a city park for Christmas Nativity scenes were denied by a federal judge on Monday.
The decision by U.S. District Court Judge Audrey B. Collins allows the city of Santa Monica to bar seasonal displays in public, the Los Angeles Times reported.
A controversy erupted after Santa Monica officials stopped a long-standing holiday tradition for groups to set up private, unattended displays in Palisades Park, including a life-size Nativity display that has been a Santa Monica fixture for decades, according to The Associated Press. Atheists have previously protested alongside the displays with anti-God messages in the park. Santa Monica's city council voted to ban all private unattended displays back in June, according to the LA Times.
The Santa Monica Nativity Scene Committee sued for freedom of speech violations, arguing that while atheists have the right to protest, that freedom doesn't trump the Christians' right to free speech, the AP reported.
"This amounts to an erosion of First Amendment liberty for religious speech in this country," an attorney for the Nativity Scene committee, William Becker, told NBCLosAngeles.com. "It's just one more step in the slippery slope."
The city is reportedly "very pleased" with the ruling, Santa Monica's attorney Barry A. Rosenbaum told the LA Times.
"(The judge) understood the government interests and that (groups wanting to put up displays) have a number of alternatives to erect displays," Rosenbaum told the newspaper.
Last year, Santa Monica held a lottery to determine which groups could have displays in city's Palisades Park, according to NBCLosAngeles.com. The atheists won 18 of the 21 available spaces, while the Nativity scene was limited to only two spaces.
Churches are still allowed to go caroling in the park, hand out literature or stage plays about the birth of Jesus there, Santa Monica Deputy City Attorney Jeanette Schachtner told the AP in an email. Displays on private land are of course permitted.
The parties in this case are all due back in court Dec. 3 for additional arguments, the LA Times reported.
The First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution guarantees freedom of speech and religion, but also states that "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion." According to the AP, that has been interpreted by courts as providing for separation of church and state, barring government bodies from promoting, endorsing or funding religion or religious institutions.
The Associated Press, as well as NBCLosAngeles.com's Patrick Healy and Jonathan Lloyd contributed to this report.
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