Beginning next year, life-size Nativity scenes can no longer be displayed at the Organ Pavilion in Balboa Park for the holidays or be stored on city property in the off-season, San Diego City Atty. John Witt said Wednesday.
He said the scenes will be allowed to stand at the pavilion until the end of the current holiday but then must be taken away by the private committee that owns the life-size figures of Jesus, Mary, Joseph, shepherds, angels, young children and assorted camels and other animals.
Witt said his preliminary opinion was prompted by a written complaint from the Jewish Community Relations Council and is based on a 1984 U.S. Supreme Court case that prohibits the display of religious scenes on public property under the First Amendment, which forbids government from making any laws establishing a religion.
"What we're saying is the Supreme Court of the United States has said that a Nativity scene standing by itself, alone, (on public property) and not a part of an overall Christmas display that includes things that are not religious in nature is in violation of the establishment clause of the Constitution," Witt said.
Word of Witt's ruling, first broadcast on television news Tuesday night, prompted a flood of calls to City Hall, sending representatives from the offices of Mayor Maureen O'Connor and City Manager John Lockwood scrambling to find a way for the Nativity scene to return to Balboa Park next year.
Paul E. Schmidt, president of the Community Christmas Center Committee--the private group that was founded in 1953 and now owns the scenes--said he disagrees with Witt.
If the Nativity scene is not allowed into the park next year, Schmidt said, the committee will also yank the other Christmas decorations it owns--the Christmas lights on a 40-foot cedar, as well as large figures of Santa Claus and eight reindeer.
"We're not going to stand still for the adoration of Santa Claus as the true and only spirit of Christmas," Schmidt said. "If the Nativity scenes go, so does Santa Claus."
Mayoral press secretary Paul Downey said O'Connor was "outraged" by the preliminary ruling and will propose that other holiday symbols be included in the display so it will be allowed in the Organ Pavilion next year.
"If you follow the federal regulations where you put together a scene where there are multiple symbols, that's OK," Downey said. "If you have other religious symbols per the regulation, it can go up."
Alternatives to Be Studied
Deputy City Manager Jack McGrory added: "We're going to take a look at the alternatives that are available to us and do everything in our power to make sure it will occur next year."
Witt said members of his office will meet in Friday with Schmidt and other city officials to hash out a compromise over how to display the elaborate Nativity scene.
The display depicts scenes from the life of Jesus Christ, and each scene is inside a shed and against a backdrop that is 8 feet high, Schmidt said. The scenes are lighted until about 10 p.m. daily.
The scenes include the Annunciation, then progress through the Christmas story showing an angel telling shepherds about the impending birth. There's a scene of Mary and Joseph being turned away from the inn, as well as the traditional scene of the newborn infant in the manger.
The display also shows three wise men on camels looking up at the star over Bethlehem, the family's flight for safety into Egypt, Jesus as a young child in the temple, and Jesus as an adult with young children in his arms.
"They (the figures) were created through the years as the committee had money to buy them," Schmidt said. "I don't know what the total value is, but I would say that to replace some of the life-sized figures, you're looking at a couple of thousands of dollars each. And we've had some figures stolen over the years. One was a little boy."
In addition to the Nativity scenes, the committee also owns the eight reindeer and Santa Claus figure that is on display near the Organ Pavilion. Each of the reindeer is 12 feet long and 6 feet high, he said.
"We had nine, but one of the city workers dropped one one time and smashed Rudolph," Schmidt said. "For years, we got letters from children asking where Rudolph is."
Jack Krasovich, deputy director of the Park and Recreation Department, said the committee's Christmas displays have been stored on city property near the Navy Hospital during the off-season.
Krasovich said city workers and committee members work together to put the figures in place, and they have been on display since Nov. 28.
Though there have been inquiries over the past several years about the propriety of a Nativity on public property, this is the first year the city has decided there is a constitutional problem with the arrangement, Krasovich said.
A spokesman for the Jewish Community Relations Council could not be reached for comment late Wednesday.
Schmidt said Wednesday he wanted to work with--not against--members of the Jewish community during the holidays.
"They also have leases and their facilities on city property," Schmidt said.
"They should work with us," he said. "If they have a scheme, whether it be Judaism, Buddhism, or any of the 'isms,' if they want to participate in the holiday celebration, we should participate together, instead of working apart."
Schmidt also said his committee--which was formed to promote the "non-commercial" celebration of Christmas--has already received offers to store the scenes on private property.