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Santa Monica Nativity Scenes Comm. v. City of Santa Monica

United States Court of Appeals, Ninth Circuit

April 30, 2015

SANTA MONICA NATIVITY SCENES COMMITTEE, a California non-profit association, Plaintiff-Appellant,
CITY OF SANTA MONICA, a municipal corporation, Defendant-Appellee

Argued and Submitted, Pasadena, California February 6, 2015

Page 1287

Appeal from the United States District Court for the Central District of California. D.C. No. 2:12-cv-08657-ABC-E. Audrey B. Collins, District Judge, Presiding.


Civil Rights

The panel affirmed the district court's order dismissing a complaint brought by the Santa Monica Nativity Scenes Committee seeking to continue the decade-old practice of exhibiting nativity scenes during the month of December in Palisades Park, Santa Monica, California.

The Committee challenged the constitutionality of the City of Santa Monica's Ordinance No. 2401, which repealed an exception to the City's general ban on " unattended displays" in its parks. The repealed exception had permitted certain unattended " Winter Displays" in the City's Palisades Park every December, using a lottery system to allocate the available space.

The panel held that the heckler's veto doctrine had no application in this case, which involved the City's generally-applicable repeal of a special exception to its policy of excluding unattended displays from its parks. The panel held that the repeal was a content-neutral time, place, and manner regulation.

The panel held that the Committee's Establishment Clause claim was without foundation. The panel determined that the City had several secular rationales for enacting Ordinance 2401--e.g., improving the aesthetics of Palisades Park and alleviating administrative burdens on the City. The panel further held that it was not plausible that, considering Ordinance 2401 in context, a " reasonable observer" would conclude that its primary effect was to communicate a message of disfavor toward Christianity.

William J. Becker (argued), The Becker Law Firm, Los Angeles, California; Michael J. Peffer, Pacific Justice Institute, Santa Ana, California, for Plaintiff-Appellant.

Yibin Shen (argued), Deputy City Attorney, Jeanette Schachtner, Chief Deputy City Attorney, Barry A. Rosenbaum, Senior Land Use Attorney, Heidi Von Tongeln, Deputy City Attorney, Santa Monica, California, for Defendant-Appellee.

Before: Michael J. Melloy,[*] Jay S. Bybee, and Sandra S. Ikuta, Circuit Judges.


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BYBEE, Circuit Judge:

No trip to Santa Monica, California, is complete without a visit to Palisades Park--a picturesque strip of land 14 blocks long that overlooks Santa Monica State Beach and the Pacific Ocean and is regarded as the " crown jewel" of the City's park system. Beginning in about 1955, every year during December, local residents erected a series of large dioramas in the Park depicting various scenes from the biblical story of Christmas. The display consisted of 14 booths, each 18 feet long and filled with life-sized mannequins and decorations. Putting up and taking down this elaborate display was a significant undertaking, and in 1983, the nonprofit Santa Monica Nativity Scenes Committee was organized to manage the yearly construction of the dioramas.

In 1994, the City prohibited the construction of unattended displays-- i.e., large, multi-day installations--in its parks, but it nonetheless continued to allow the nativity scenes. Subsequently, in 2003, the City Council enacted an exception to the general prohibition on unattended displays. This " Winter Display" exception authorized unattended displays during the month of December, and only in Palisades Park. Under the " Winter Display" rule, all members of the community, not just the Committee, were permitted to put up displays, and display space was to be allocated on a firstcome, first-served basis.

The Winter Display system functioned without incident in its first few years of existence, during which time the only applicant who requested substantial display space was the Committee. In 2011, however, applications for Winter Display space surged. That year, a number of atheists who opposed the placement of religious displays in Palisades Park applied for Winter Display space in what the Committee alleges was a coordinated attempt to keep the space away from the Committee and other religious groups. The City used a lottery system it had created to allocate the available space, and the atheists received the majority of the display spots. The Committee and the atheists both vowed to flood the display-space lottery with even more applications in 2012.

Rather than continue the lottery system and expend the effort necessary to process all of these expected applications, the City elected to repeal the Winter Display exception and keep the Park free of all unattended displays. The Committee responded by suing the City, alleging that the repeal ordinance violated the Committee's right to free speech because it was an unconstitutional " heckler's veto." The Committee also alleged that the repeal violated the Establishment Clause by conveying

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the message that the City disapproved of Christianity.

Neither of these allegations constitutes a viable claim for relief under the First Amendment. The heckler's veto doctrine, which applies in situations where a particular speaker is silenced because his speech invites opposition, disorder, or violence, has no application in this case, which involves the City's generally-applicable repeal of a special exception to its policy of excluding unattended displays from its parks. The repeal was a content-neutral time, place, and manner regulation, not a heckler's veto. The Committee's Establishment Clause claim, meanwhile, is without foundation. We therefore affirm the district court's order dismissing the Committee's complaint under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(6).


In the early years of the nativity scenes' existence, the City of Santa Monica had no formal regulations dealing with private, unattended structures on public park land, and the City allowed and even encouraged the yearly display of the Committee's nativity scenes. In 1994, the City enacted an ordinance prohibiting the erection of any " tent, lodge, shelter, or structure" in city parks without authorization from the City. Following the enactment of this ordinance, the City issued " community events" permits for the nativity scenes each year.

In 2001, however, the City adopted a new " Community Events Ordinance" that did not cover multi-day events or installations. The Community Events Ordinance's more restrictive scope meant that the City could no longer permit multi-day, unattended displays such as the nativity scenes as " community events." In 2001 and 2002, the nativity scenes were thus " installed with the City's knowledge but without permits." The City subsequently received inquiries from both the Committee and City residents about the legal status of the nativity scenes.

In order to provide a legal framework that would allow the " long-standing tradition" of the nativity scenes to continue while respecting content neutrality, the City Council passed an ordinance in 2003 that modified the general prohibition on " structures" in City parks, adding an explicit exception for so-called " Winter Displays." The ordinance defined these displays as " [u]nattended installations or unattended displays in Palisades Park . . . during the month of December in an area designated by City Council resolution." The ordinance provided that, if the amount of Winter Display space requested was greater than the area that the City Council had allotted, spaces would be allotted on a first-come, first-served basis, " irrespective of the content of [each] display or installation and irrespective of the identity of the person or persons responsible for the display." The City Council subsequently passed a separate ordinance specifying an area of Palisades Park roughly two city blocks long as the area available for Winter Displays.

The first-come, first-served system for Winter Displays was in place from 2003 until 2010. During this period, the number of requests for space in the Winter Display area never exceeded about half of the total area that the City Council had allotted, or one city block. The Committee continued to display its 14 nativity scenes each year.

In 2010, the demand for Winter Display space increased. The City received three applications for space; two of these applications requested the same space in the same city block, which had never happened before, and for the first time, all of the space in the two city blocks that the City

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Council had designated was allocated to applicants. The Winter Displays filled one city block and also included " two sizeable displays" in the second block. One of the three applicants that year was Damon Vix, an atheist who opposed the nativity scenes' presence on City property. Vix erected only a single display in the space he was assigned, leaving the rest of his area empty. The display was a chain-link fence surrounding a signboard bearing a ...

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