ONTARIO - When Nancy Bartholomy heard about the ban on publicly displaying Nativity scenes in a Santa Monica park, she immediately thought about the religious creches exhibited on the Euclid Avenue median in downtown.

Protected by wooden shelters, the dozen Nativity scenes between D and G streets tell the story of Jesus' birth.

For 54 years, it has been a tradition for the scenes to go up in Ontario - through the help of volunteers like Bartholomy - on the weekend before Thanksgiving and come down the first week in January.

But the case in Santa Monica brings a threat to the Inland Empire scenes Bartholomy would rather not think about.

"It's a sad state that in our whole country we can't express our freedom. Christianity is under attack across the whole country," said Bartholomy, an Ontario resident, who along with her husband, Joe, have been part of the community's resurgent interest in the scenes.

A judge late this week dismissed a lawsuit from the Santa Monica Scenes Committee seeking to restore the 59-year-old tradition of displaying the scenes at Palisades Park.

"This is a victory for atheists, anti-Christians and people who don't believe the First Amendment belongs as much to religious speakers as it does to secular and anti-religious speakers," said Bill Becker, the attorney representing the Santa Monica committee.

The decision, Becker said, shows that government entities will bow to the pressure of anyone who is anti-religion, even though religious expression is protected by the First Amendment.


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In many legal cases, a religious symbol such as a creche or nativity scene, is in a city hall or on the lawn of city hall, which Becker said is government speech.

When scenes or creches are displayed in areas that are seen as traditional public forums, like public parks or medians, then the government must make a compelling case that public health or interests are at stake, he said.

"It wasn't demonstrated. The interest they stated, and the basis for banning the displays, was their permit application process was too erroneous to administer," Becker said.

The committee intends to appeal the ruling to the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals.

In the meantime, the committee is trying to secure a location on private property to display all 14 booths. Santa Monica has allowed the committee to erect the displays, as long as they disassemble them every night when the park closes.

"The implications of this case are more critical, not for what we're trying to do - merely protect the Nativity scenes tradition. We're not just protecting religious speech, but we are protecting the First Amendment of free speech of everybody," Becker said.

But the litigation being played out in Santa Monica is nothing new to those associated with the Ontario Nativity scenes.

The scenes, an Ontario fixture since the late 1950s, were not made an issue until a resident filed claims against the city in 1999.

The resident, who was an activist and an atheist, argued that taxpayers were subsidizing the Christian displays. He charged that the display violated the U.S. Constitution because the city helped store and set up the Nativity scene figures.

To avoid a lawsuit, Ontario Chamber of Commerce officials started to handle those tasks and City Hall involvement ceased. The Chamber of Commerce did not return calls for comment.

But Bartholomy said she knows the scenes will become an issue again, even though there have been more changes to the displays since the chamber took over.

"They made it open to any religious group that wishes to put a display up. It's not just for Christianity even though it is Christmas," she said.

Councilwoman Debra Dorst- Porada has helped champion efforts to bring attention to the scenes and help restore them.

It has nothing to do with the city, she argues, everything is done through volunteers. The operation is led by the Chamber of Commerce Foundation, Redeemer Lutheran Church in Ontario provides the storage and the scenes are set up by the Carpenters Union. 

"Anybody can throw a wrench into anything, we'll just keep doing what we're doing," Dorst-Porada said.

The scenes, which include scripture references, life-sized statues and background murals from the life of Jesus Christ, were born out of the Chamber of Commerce trying to attract attention downtown to increase business.

The statues were sculpted by Rudolfo Vargas, who specialized in religious scenes and also worked in movies for companies such as Disney.

Dorst-Porada said they have always been fortunate to have outside civic organizations such as Kiwanis and Soroptimist Club be the funders of these scenes.

"These are historic and over 60 years (old)," she said. "They are a historic treasure, more historic treasure than symbolism."

Since then, the backdrops and the shelters have been rebuilt and repainted. Most recently, the Carpenters Union provided newly built shelters for the scenes.

Dorst-Porada said her focus is trying to rally more support for the sculptures, which are in need of repair and repainting.

Because the rehabilitation will be costly, volunteers with the Nativity scenes will be at the 30th annual Christmas on Euclid street fair today accepting donations, she said.

She'd also like to see more churches in the city lend their service. Dorst-Porada said she plans on holding a meeting at the end of the month or in January with the church community and anyone interested in being involved to help form a Nativity scenes committee.

"Ideally, we'd have subcommittees that will promote, preserve and protect all these scenes. That's something we've been lax in," she said.

On Dec. 22, people are invited to come out to the bandstand for a night of Christmas songs from 6 to 10 p.m. Dorst-Porada said she is looking for choir groups or local bands who are interested in performing.

To get involved, contact Dorst-Porada via email at Dporada@verizon.net.


Reach Liset via email, call her at 909-483-8556, or find her on Twitter @DBOntarioNow.