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Appeals court upholds California city's decision that banned Nativity scene displays

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SANTA MONICA, California — A Southern California city's decision to ban winter displays in a public park did not violate the free speech rights of Nativity scene supporters, a federal appeals court ruled on Thursday.

The decision by a panel of the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals upheld a lower court ruling that dismissed a lawsuit against Santa Monica's ban of unattended winter displays in Palisades Park by the Santa Monica Nativity Scenes Committee.

The appeals court said Santa Monica had several secular reasons to stop allowing those displays, including improving the aesthetics of the park and alleviating administrative burdens on the city, and did not target the Nativity scene displays.

"By repealing its Winter Display exception, the City did no more than treat all potential displays equally," Circuit Judge Jay Bybee wrote.

The appeals court also rejected the committee's claim that the city's decision conveyed a message that it disapproved of Christianity.

PHOTO: FILE - In this Dec. 13, 2011 file photo, a woman walks past two of the traditional displays showing the Nativity scene along Ocean Avenue at Palisades Park in Santa Monica, Calif. A federal appeals court has upheld a decision by a Southern California city that banned unattended Nativity scene displays in a public park. The 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals said in a ruling on Thursday, April 30, 2015, that Santa Monica had several secular reasons to stop allowing certain unattended winter displays in the park. Those reasons included improving the aesthetics of the park and alleviating administrative burdens on the city. (AP Photo/Ringo H.W. Chiu, File)
FILE - In this Dec. 13, 2011 file photo, a woman walks past two of the traditional displays showing the Nativity scene along Ocean Avenue at Palisades Park in Santa Monica, Calif. A federal appeals court has upheld a decision by a Southern California city that banned unattended Nativity scene displays in a public park. The 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals said in a ruling on Thursday, April 30, 2015, that Santa Monica had several secular reasons to stop allowing certain unattended winter displays in the park. Those reasons included improving the aesthetics of the park and alleviating administrative burdens on the city. (AP Photo/Ringo H.W. Chiu, File)

Bill Becker, the committee's attorney, said the decision was expected, and he did not plan to appeal.

"We are disappointed," he said. "We believe Christians are being targeted. There's a great deal of intolerance for Christians in society today."

The Nativity scene displays were erected for nearly six decades in Palisades Park, until debates in recent years grew more heated, resulting in atheists erecting their own, sometimes satirical, displays.

City officials instituted a lottery for display space as competition increased, but city staff members complained that administering the lottery system was consuming significant time, according to the 9th Circuit.

Becker had argued that the city banned winter displays in reaction to the atheists' objections to the committee's Nativity scenes and thus illegally suppressed the committee's free speech rights.

But the 9th Circuit said the city did not ban just religious displays, but adopted a general "evenhanded regulation" against all winter displays.

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