By Steve Gorman
LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - A federal judge denied a bid by a group of Christian churches on Monday to force a California beachside town to reopen a park to a nearly 60-year-old Christmas-season nativity display it discontinued after atheists upstaged the event last year.
The court action grew out of a clash between sponsors of the nativity scenes and a group of atheist activists who competed with the churches for limited space in Santa Monica's biggest public park and managed to dominate last year's holiday displays with anti-religious messages.
Following the December 2011 controversy, the Santa Monica City Council voted in June to bar any future unattended private displays in Palisades Park, including Christmas crèches or atheist exhibits, regardless of content.
But the church-backed group, the Nativity Scenes Committee, filed suit in U.S. District Court in Los Angeles in October, seeking to restore it annual collection of diorama scenes depicting the birth of Jesus.
The lawsuit says that Santa Monica's newly imposed ban on unattended park displays, a policy the city has billed as "content neutral," poses an unconstitutional infringement on the church group's freedom of speech and expression of religion.
But U.S. District Judge Audrey Collins refused the Christian group's request for a preliminary injunction that would have required the city to allow a return of the nativity displays during the holiday season while the case proceeds.
Collins said the Christian group retains the right to present its religious exhibit on private property in other locations throughout the city.
Barry Rosenbaum, an attorney for the city, told reporters after the hearing that Santa Monica's policy change would withstand judicial scrutiny because the ban "did not look at the content or subject matter of these displays."
But the plaintiff's lawyer, William Becker, vowed to appeal, saying that "religious speech enjoys as much protection in public places as secular speech."
Damon Vix, an atheist who led the non-believers' cause but is not a party to the lawsuit, has denied he was seeking to drive the church displays out of the park. He said in a local radio interview last year that his aim "was to try to create what is called equal protection under the law."
"I wanted to achieve a presence as large as the Christian groups," he said during an appearance on KPCC-FM.
He and supporters won a city lottery last year awarding them 18 of 21 display spots. Two other spaces went to the church group, and a third was allocated for a Hanukkah display.
(Reporting by Steve Gorman; Editing by Cynthia Johnston and Lisa Shumaker)