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Witt Reverses His Stance on Nativity Scenes

December 11, 1987|RALPH FRAMMOLINO | Times Staff Writer

Under pressure from city officials and a storm of community protest, San Diego City Atty. John Witt late Thursday backed off from his opinion that a popular series of life-size Nativity scenes would be barred from the Organ Pavilion at Balboa Park starting next year.

Witt's reversal came after angry San Diegans made hundreds of telephone calls to city offices and local Jewish leaders, who reported at least one bomb threat and dozens of blatantly anti-Semitic messages.

The avalanche of phone calls came after Witt told reporters earlier this week that the privately owned creche--actually eight scenes depicting the birth and life of Jesus Christ--would be allowed to stand until the end of the year, but would be barred from the public property starting next year.

He also said the figures and backdrops from the scene could no longer be stored on city grounds near the Navy Hospital or be erected with the help of city crews, as they have been for years.

Decision Based on Court Cases

The preliminary opinion, Witt said, was prompted by inquiries this fall from the Jewish Community Relations Council, the social action arm of the United Jewish Federation. Witt said the opinion was based on recent U.S. Supreme Court cases that found the use of public property for holiday exhibits featuring the symbols from just one religion is in violation of the First Amendment, which prohibits government from making any laws establishing a religion.

But on Thursday, Witt backed off in part from that opinion when he issued a one-page memo to Mayor Maureen O'Connor, City Council members and City Manager John Lockwood.

"The Nativity scene displayed for the last several years during the Christmas holidays in Balboa Park is not necessarily in violation of the Establishment Clause of the United States Constitution," Witt wrote.

"Working with other city officials, I intend to recommend a means by which the display can be present during the Christmas holidays without offending the Constitution," he wrote.

The memo maintained, however, that the Nativity scenes can no longer be stored on city property or be erected with the help of city park and recreation crews.

Witt admitted that his office botched the handling of the sensitive legal issue, and that he has yet to go to Balboa Park personally to look at the scene. He also acknowledged that his memo was a change in what he had told reporters just the day before.

"We've handled it very badly," Witt said. "Everything was done orally without specifying in our own minds what we are talking about, and I think now we have a pretty good grip on it.

"If that's backing off, that's backing off, OK?" Witt said "I'm not going to be sensitive about it."

Witt said a meeting is still planned for today to discuss the Nativity scene with representatives from the mayor's office, city manager's office and the Community Christmas Center Committee, the private group that owns the creche. Discussions will center on how the scenes can be changed or combined with other religious and non-religious symbols to make the display more constitutionally palatable, Witt said.

Meanwhile, members of the local Jewish community said on Thursday they have received hundreds of angry--and sometimes obscene--telephone calls in response to the city attorney's handling of the matter.

Rabbi Aaron Gottesman, director of the Jewish Fellowship Center, said he notified police after receiving a bomb threat late Tuesday.

In a tape recording of the telephone call, an angry man used obscene language. "You Satanic bastards, I just saw your (expletive) on TV. Your building is going to be blown up . . . ."

Another recorded phone call threatened the formation of a Christian network to boycott Jewish-owned businesses.

Gottesman said the controversy has brought out "latent anti-Semitism, the vicious anti-Semitism that comes out with the drop of a hat," and he cast blame on Witt.

"I don't think John Witt did anybody a favor by exposing the concept at this time of the year," Gottesman said. "I think the timing stinks because of the obvious hurt feelings it is bound to generate, and those hurt feelings could lead to animosity in the area of inter-faith relationships."

Gottesman also said he doubted the wisdom of the Jewish group that raised the question about the creche in the first place.

"My contention is that it is not worth paying the price of the loss of good will . . . The perception in the non-Jewish community is that every Jew is responsible one way or another," he said.

But Jim Farley, chairman of the Jewish Community Relations Council, said his group intended no offense when it made inquiries about the creche earlier this year.

"Obviously, this has been characterized as a Jewish--Christian, Jewish--non-Jewish issue," Farley said. "It has nothing to do with it, in our estimation. We are not trying to deny anybody their right to worship in the way they like. We are not attempting to try to take the Christ out of Christmas."

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