- Associated Press - Monday, November 19, 2012

LOS ANGELES — A federal judge Monday denied a Christian group’s bid for a preliminary injunction to force suburban Santa Monica to reopen spaces in a city park to private, unattended displays, including Christmas Nativity scenes.

U.S. District Court Judge Audrey Collins formalized an earlier tentative ruling during a hearing.

William Becker, the attorney for the Christian group, said he expects the case will be dismissed at the next hearing and plans to appeal.

“The atheists won and they will always win unless we get courts to understand how the game is played and this is a game that was played very successfully and they knew it,” Mr. Becker said after the hearing.

Christmas Nativity scenes had been erected in Palisades Park for decades. Last year, atheists overwhelmed the city’s auction process for display sites, winning most of the slots and triggering a bitter dispute. Santa Monica officials snuffed the city’s holiday tradition this year rather than referee the religious rumble, prompting churches that have set up a 14-scene Christian diorama to sue over freedom of speech claims.

Under the city’s rules, the churches can still set up an attended display when Palisades Park is open and erect unattended displays in 12 of the city’s other parks with a special permit. They can also distribute leaflets, carol or hold a Christmas play, city officials said.

“It’s a sad, sad commentary on the attitudes of the day that a nearly 60-year-old Christmas tradition is now having to hunt for a home, something like our savior had to hunt for a place to be born because the world was not interested,” Hunter Jameson, head of the nonprofit Santa Monica Nativity Scene Committee, said in advance of the hearing.

The atheists were not parties to the legal case. Their role outside court highlights a tactical shift as atheists evolve into a vocal minority eager to get their nonbeliefs into the public square as never before.

National atheist groups earlier this year took out full-page newspaper ads and hundreds of TV spots in response to Catholic bishops’ activism around women’s health care issues and are gearing up to battle for their own space alongside public Christmas displays in small towns across America this season.