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U.S. District Court Judge Audrey Collins Upholds Santa Monica’s Decision

published November 26, 2012

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Personal Life

Audrey B. Collins, U.S. District Judge
Audrey B. Collins was born in Chester, Pennsylvania. In 1967, she attended Howard University and graduated with a B.A. By 1969, Collins received her M.A. from American University, and earned a J.D. from UCLA School of Law in 1977.

After law school, Collins launched her legal career as an Assistant Attorney of the Legal Aid Foundation of Los Angeles. From 1978 to 1994, the future judge became a deputy district attorney of the Los Angeles County District Attorney's Office. While serving as a deputy district attorney, Collins had stints as an Assistant Director of the Bureaus of Central and Special Operations and was Head Deputy of the Torrance Branch Office. In 1992, she served as a deputy general counsel, Office of the Special Advisor to the Los Angeles Police Department Board of Commissioners.

On January 27, 1994, President Bill Clinton nominated Collins to a seat on the U.S. District Court for the Central District of California. On May 6, 1994, the judge was confirmed by the United States Senate and she received her commission three day later. In 2009, Collins became Chief Judge.

Judge Collins Rules on Santa Monica Nativity Scenes

On Monday, November 19, 2012, U.S. District Judge Audrey B. Collins rejected an attempt by a group of Christians to compel the city of Santa Monica, California, to display their Nativity Scenes during the month of December. According to a Huffington Post article, “Santa Monica Nativity Scenes At Palisades Park Will Be No More, Rules Federal Judge,” Collins knocked down a proposal in favor of the Santa Monica Nativity Scenes Committee since their lawsuit is currently pending in a court of law. The judge confirmed that the city of Santa Monica had acted lawfully when they decided to ban the Nativity in the California beach community of Palisades Park because the religious displays affected other groups of people such as Jews and atheist.

According to an ABC 7 editorial, “Bid for Santa Monica Nativity scene denied,” problems arose three years ago, when an atheist named Damon Vix was allowed to erect a booth in Palisades Park, right next to the Christmas nativity scene. The ABC 7 column explains that Vix hung a sign in his booth that quoted President Thomas Jefferson: “Religions are all alike -- founded on fables and mythologies.” The other side of the sign stated, “Happy Solstice.” In 2011, Vix enlisted other individuals who swamped Santa Monica with applications for displays. The article points out that Vix's secular alliance secured 18 of the 21 spaces provided at Palisades Park. After the secular coalition's signs were destroyed, the city decided to end a 60-year tradition that began in 1953.

ABC News editorial, “Judge Rejects Suit by Christian Group for Nativity Display,” also discusses how Santa Monica was overwhelmed with applications submitted by the secular coalition because they wanted to create their own displays during the holiday season. Santa Monica officials quickly decided to eliminate the 60-year tradition, which earned the city one of its nicknames, “The City of the Christmas Story.”

ABC 7 article acknowledged that the city of Santa Monica had to hire two individual staff members who spent approximately two hundred and forty five hours processing applications submitted by people who wanted to exhibit their displays.

The Huffington Post piece noted that Judge Collins supported Santa Monica's decision to ban the nativity scene not to crush religious speech, but because the displays became a drain on Santa Monica's resources, obstructed the ocean views and ruined Palisades Park's grounds. The Huffington Post reported that Collins said churches are permitted to establish unattended displays at twelve other parks in Santa Monica as long as they obtained a permit. The judge also stated that the church can carol, hand out flyers and exhibit the Christmas story in Palisades Park when it opens. The Post quoted Collins when she asserted, “I think all of the evidence that is admissible about the aesthetic impacts and administrative burden shows that this was a very reasonable alternative for the city to go this way – and it had nothing to do with content.”

USA Today, “U.S. judge blocks Nativity displays in Santa Monica,” explains that William Becker, an attorney hired by a group of Christian churches, disagrees with Collins' judgment and he plans on appealing her decision. Becker told the Los Angeles Times, “The atheists won. It's a shame about Christmas. Pontius Pilate was exactly the same kind of administrator.” USA Today reports that another hearing for additional argument regarding this case has been scheduled for December 3, 2012. The column discusses that the church groups created a fourteen scene diorama so they could sue Santa Monica over freedom of speech rights. The church groups believe they can get a federal injunction, which would demand the city to restore the religious displays in Palisades Park. The church groups claim that Santa Monica's city council has conceded to a “heckler's veto.”

According to USA Today, Hunter Jameson, who is head of the non-profit Santa Monica Nativity Scene Committee that is suing the city, stated, “It's a sad, sad commentary on the attitudes of the day that a nearly 60-year-old Christmas tradition is now having to hunt for a home, something like our savior had to hunt for a place to be born because the world was not interested.” Jameson also expressed his frustration over the banning of religious displays when he told the Huffington Post, “The birth of Jesus Christ is the linchpin of Western civilization, our calendar derives from it, but now somehow it's just not right to have a classic depiction of this event in a Nativity scene in a city park.”

Many religious individuals probably share similar sentiments as Jameson, but Deputy City Attorney Yibin Shen told the Huffington Post that banning the displays at Palisades Park has been in the works for years. Shen admitted that the prohibition was motivated by the increasing number of applicants in recent years. The deputy city attorney added, “This is a 20-year decision in the making.”

USA Today mentioned that atheist groups have not slapped a lawsuit against Santa Monica over banning their displays. They have been watching the churches and the city duke it out in the courtroom. Vix, the forty-four year-old atheist who successfully recruited individuals to flood Santa Monica with applications for secular displays told USA Today it was “such a unique and blatant example of the violation of the First Amendment that I felt I had to act.” Vix continued to say, “If I had another goal it would be to remove the ‘under God' phrase from the Pledge of Allegiance — but that's a little too big for me to take on for right now.”

Although Vix was pleased with Collins' November 19 ruling, he is saddened by the hostility that's been directed towards atheists since he first hung an anti-God sign three years ago. According to the Huffington Post, Vix said, “So many people don't understand atheists. If you read the signs we put up, one said, ‘Love is all around you.' That's really a better understanding of who most atheists are.”