Claiming a violation of their First Amendment rights, Rehoboth’s Knights of Columbus Star of the Sea Council has threatened a lawsuit against Rehoboth Beach if the organization is not allowed to place a crèche on or immediately adjacent to the Bandstand or Boardwalk.
The Knights of Columbus have retained First Liberty Institute, a nonprofit law firm specializing in religious liberty cases, to pursue this action. First Liberty, based in Texas, announced the potential lawsuit in a Dec. 12 letter to Mayor Paul Kuhns and City Manager Sharon Lynn.
“City officials either have terribly wrong information or such animus toward religion and people of faith that they would rather break the law than allow a Nativity display at Christmas time,” said Roger Byron, First Liberty Institute senior counsel, in a prepared statement. “It is a blatant violation of the First Amendment to ban religious displays from public property.”
Byron cites case law and decades-long tradition as reasons why the city is violating the First Amendment. Additionally, he says, other yearly holiday displays on site include a Christmas tree, holiday lights and light displays, and a large Santa’s House adjacent to the circle on the Boardwalk – erected, owned and displayed by the Rehoboth Beach-Dewey Beach Chamber of Commerce.
Byron said the Knights of Columbus asked Lynn in November if they could place the crèche near Santa’s House.
“The City simultaneously banned KOC’s religious Christmas display but permitted one or more privately sponsored secular Christmas displays by another organization. Such viewpoint discrimination is repugnant to the First Amendment, unlawful, and provides KOC entitle[ment] to relief,” said Byron.
Byron gave the city until 5 p.m., Dec. 13, to respond to the request. Kuhns said he had no comment on the threatened lawsuit.
City Solicitor Glenn Mandalas sent a response Dec. 13 by the requested deadline, but it wasn’t what the Knights of Columbus wanted to hear. Similar to Byron, Mandalas cited case law to back the city’s stance.
“I feel certain we can agree that no two cases present the same facts, and no decision of any court presents facts identical to those present in Rehoboth Beach,” said Mandalas.
Mandalas said the city worked closely with the chamber to identify a prominent location on the city’s most travelled street to permit religious and secular displays of any and all varieties.
“Putting all the court cases and religious passions aside, it seems relevant to reduce this issue to the basic essence of what has occurred. Here, one church of one faith has sought to secure a single prominent location not large enough to accommodate a display of any other religious or secular group,” said Mandalas. “But because that location is not the significantly smaller location demanded by St. Edmond Catholic Church, it has been declared unacceptable by the church.”
As of press deadline Dec. 16, there has been no word from Liberty Institute on the next step the Knights of Columbus plan to take.