LOS ANGELES - A US judge ruled Monday against Christians seeking to force municipal authorities to allow them to erect traditional Christmas Nativity displays in Santa Monica, California.
In the latest twist in a row between Christians and atheists -- who last year erected a series of anti-religious displays -- the judge refused to grant an injunction to the Santa Monica Nativity Scenes Committee.
The committee has sued municipal authorities in the sea-front town west of Los Angeles, seeking to restore nearly 60-year-old religious display to Palisades Park, which overlooks the ocean and Santa Monica Pier.
Specifically it claimed that Santa Monica City Council infringed its right to free speech and freedom of religion under the First Amendment, when it voted in June to ban displays from the park.
But Judge Audrey Collins denied the Christians' request for an injunction which would force Santa Monica authorities to allow their Nativity scenes over the upcoming holiday season.
Last year, in a lottery to decide who got how many display spaces, atheists unexpectedly won 18 out of 21, squeezing the Christians -- who in previous years had 14 plots -- into just two.
The atheists used their plots to put up displays proclaiming "Reason's Greetings!" and a poster showing Father Christmas, Jesus and Satan, with the tag "37 million Americans know MYTHS when they see them."
The Santa Monica municipal authorities then voted in June to outlaw unattended displays in the park, in what was seen as a move to avoid a repeat of the row again this year.
The judge said Monday that the Christian group still has the right to display its Nativity scene on private property and other locations in Santa Monica. The Christian display was first put up in the park in 1953.
City lawyer Barry Rosenbaum said there were "multiple opportunities" for groups to put up displays, adding that Palisades Park was "content neutral," and the legal case had nothing to do with the religious content of the display.
The judge set a date of December 3 for the next hearing in the row. But the Christian group said it wasn't hopeful.
"This amounts to an erosion of First Amendment rights," its attorney William Becker said after the court hearing. "Religious speech enjoys as much protection in public spaces as secular speech."
Becker vowed to appeal, but acknowledged that the judge would likely dismiss the case next month. Hopes of putting up the Nativity scenes "may be lost this Christmas season," he said, speaking outside the court.
Santa Monica, which lies at the end of the fabled Route 66 west of Los Angeles, attracts millions of tourists and daytrippers every year to its pier, broad beaches and spectacular mountain and ocean views.