As lawsuit progresses, Rehoboth installs nativity scene

City commissioners update holiday display policy to include all unattended exhibits
December 11, 2020

Story Location:
The Bandstand
Rehoboth Beach, DE 19971
United States

For the first time in years, there’s a nativity scene at the Bandstand in Rehoboth Beach – just not the one at the center of a legal drama that’s entering its third Christmas season.

During a meeting in November, commissioners unanimously approved City Manager Sharon Lynn spending up to $10,000 on a holiday display that will be installed and maintained by the city. At the same meeting, commissioners approved a holiday display ordinance prohibiting private holiday exhibits on public property.

A little more than a month later, at a commissioner workshop Dec. 7, Lynn announced the display, which also includes a menorah for Hanukkah, a sign recognizing Kwanzaa and a snowman, was in the process of being installed.

There’s also a sign that reads, “The City of Rehoboth Beach is pleased to celebrate the diverse, cultural, and ethnic heritages of our peoples!”

In addition to approving the new holiday figures, city commissioners modified the holiday display policy to deal with all unattended exhibits on public property.

The vote to change the policy came during a special meeting Dec. 7, immediately following the morning workshop. Mayor Stan Mills presented the changes, saying it had been brought to the city’s attention the policy was too specific because it addressed only holiday displays during a specific time of year.

As approved, if an unattended display that is not city-owned, city-leased, or city-rented is erected on city property, the city will remove the display at the expense of the person or organization that put it up. 

Mills said the policy does not limit unattended displays on private property. There was little discussion by the commissioners on the proposed changes prior to the favorable vote.

Legal battle with Knights of Columbus ongoing

The unattended display policy was passed in response to an ongoing legal battle with Rehoboth Beach’s Knights of Columbus Star of the Sea Council and members of St. Edmond Catholic Church on the placement of a nativity scene near the Bandstand.

Two years ago, the Knights placed a nativity scene by the Bandstand. At the request of the city, it was removed days later. A few days after that, the nativity scene was installed in the outdoor patio entrance of the ocean-block Grotto Pizza on Rehoboth Avenue.

Last year, the city continued to deny the church placement of the nativity scene near the Bandstand. Again, the figures were placed at Grotto Pizza.

In June, First Liberty Institute, a Texas-based nonprofit law firm specializing in religious liberty cases, filed a lawsuit in the U.S. District Court of Delaware on behalf of the Knights claiming religious discrimination for the blanket ban of the crèche from city property.

More recently, in early November, First Liberty filed a request for a preliminary injunction stopping the city from enforcing its no-religious-display policy this year, because the court case is not likely to be settled this year.

There was a hearing on this injunction request Dec. 8.

In an email Dec. 9, City Solicitor Glenn Mandalas said attorneys for the Knights acknowledged that the display policy adopted Dec. 7 is a valid and legal policy under the United States Constitution.

Mandalas said the court did not render a decision on the request for a preliminary injunction; instead, it asked the parties to see if a resolution could be reached.

“The parties conferred and no resolution was reached,” said Mandalas. “Consequently, the court will issue a decision.”

Mandalas said he did not know when the court’s decision will come. As of press deadline Dec. 10, no decision had been issued.

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