The West Hollywood City Council has agreed to give $24,000 to local business groups to install winter holiday lights on Santa Monica Boulevard, provided that the lights do not form stars, trees and other "religious symbols."
The council voted unanimously to fund lighting projects by the West Hollywood Chamber of Commerce and the West Hollywood Community Alliance in hopes of promoting local businesses during the winter holiday season.
Councilman Alan Viterbi had objected to a tentative chamber plan to install light streamers shaped like Christmas trees and stars on the Santa Monica Boulevard median strip.
"I think this is a really significant issue," said Viterbi, who is Jewish. "You see the radical religious right all over the country chipping away at the separation of church and state and imposing the religion of the majority on the minority.
"We are making the statement that this is a government that is secular and that it is not trying to impose one religious standard on the whole community."
Viterbi said the stand is particularly important in West Hollywood, where an estimated one-third of the population is Jewish. Government-funded Christmas decorations make Jews feel "a little bit less a part of society than we would like," he said.
Lorraine Howell, director of the Chamber of Commerce decorating committee, said the group would have no problem eliminating religious symbols. The lights are designed to bring "charm and sparkle" to the city and promote shopping at night, she said.
Richard Settles, president of the West Hollywood Community Alliance, said the group will go ahead with plans to put white lights in trees along Santa Monica, from Crescent Heights Boulevard to La Brea Avenue. Viterbi said he believes the Alliance lights will foster a secular holiday spirit.
Howell said merchants proposed the lighting plans after rumors that some shoppers would boycott West Hollywood shops because of an earlier City Council decision not to observe Christmas and other religious holidays.
The policy, jokingly called the "Grinch Law," was adopted in August after the council tried to make Yom Kippur, the Jewish Day of Atonement, a city holiday. The ordinance, which gave city employees the day off, was rescinded after City Atty. Michael Jenkins told the council that the action might violate the constitutional separation of church and state.
The City Council decided then to remove all religious holidays from its calendar, even Christmas, which the U.S. Supreme Court has declared a secular holiday.
Other Westside cities differ in their policies on government spending for religious holiday decorations.
Beverly Hills pays for Christmas decorations that include large Santa Clauses driving sleighs and teams of reindeer.
In Santa Monica, business organizations pay for winter holiday decorations. Until six years ago, the city helped to pay for the installation of Nativity scenes in Palisades Park.
City Attorney Robert M. Myers said all groups are free to use the city's parks at any time. Last year an atheist group set up a booth near the Nativity scenes to celebrate the winter solstice.