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Mayor on nativity fiasco: Black eye for Rehoboth

St. Edmond members say officials deny city’s history
December 11, 2018

Story Location:
229 Rehoboth Avenue
Rehoboth Beach  Delaware  19971
United States

Public opinion continues to rage, but it appears a nativity installed on city property – and then removed 48 hours later – will not be re-installed before Christmas, Tuesday, Dec. 25.

“The holiday creche was put up without permission this year, and that’s why it was taken down,” said Mayor Paul Kuhns, during previously scheduled special commissioner meeting Dec. 7.

The controversy began Dec. 2, during the Community Unity Dinner, when St. Edmond Catholic Church parishioner Patty Derrick and the Rev. William Cocco of St. Edmond approached Kuhns and City Manager Sharon Lynn about putting up the nativity. A couple of days later, and after the church says it contacted local representatives from other houses of worship, St. Edmond parishioners installed the creche near the Christmas tree, at the Bandstand on Rehoboth Avenue. During a meeting at city hall Dec. 5, Kuhns and Lynn were informed of the installation. By noon, Dec. 6, it had been removed.

The installation of the nativity scene was not on the meeting agenda Dec. 7, but Kuhns allowed public comment on the subject because nearly 60 people showed up to voice their displeasure with the city. Prior to allowing public comment though, Kuhns read a letter, dated Nov. 15, from Anti-Defamation League Philadelphia Regional Director Nancy K. Baron-Baer.

Religious displays on public property can be deeply divisive, making members of religious minority groups feel uncomfortable and unwelcome, Baron-Baer wrote. Religious displays on courthouse steps, at city hall or in other seats of government can send a strong message to religious minorities that they do not belong or do not have an equal say in government, she said.

Baron-Baer said, from a legal perspective, a Christmas tree is not a religious symbol, but a creche or nativity scene is. A small creche in a large display that also includes snowflakes, reindeer and other nonreligious symbols does not convey the same message as a prominent creche standing alongside or dominating a display.

“The underlying principle, though, is fairly simple: a local government must never, in whatever it does, appear to endorse or disapprove of one particular religion or religion in general,” said Baron-Baer.

This nativity scene has a long history in Rehoboth Beach. For decades it was installed prominently on Rehoboth Avenue near the Boardwalk by the Kiwanis Club of Coastal Delaware. In the late 2000s, during streetscape construction, the nativity moved to the front lawn of M&T Bank, also on Rehoboth Avenue. Last year it was moved again, but this year, before the installation at the Bandstand, it had been in storage.

Cocco was first to speak at the meeting.

“The true meaning of Christmas is Jesus Christ. We have Christmas lights in this town, lots of them. A Christmas tree. Christmas wreaths. Christmas decorations. A Christmas parade. And yet, we’re not allowed to show Jesus Christ,” he said. “To me, that doesn’t make any sense.”

The commissioners made no comments, but Kuhns said, “You have plenty of property at St. Edmond.”

Cocco also said the Supreme Court has said the creche is not an endorsement of religion; it’s a part of our history as an American society.

“Just because it’s up there doesn’t mean the city is saying everyone is Christian or has to believe in Jesus,” he said. “Christmas came from the birth of Jesus Christ. Even if you don’t believe in the religious aspect of it, it’s a historical event.”

The Rev. Marjorie Belmont-Burns, pastor of Faith United Methodist Church, said not all African-Americans celebrate Kwanzaa, which begins Dec. 26 and runs through Jan. 1. But, she said, 95 percent of African-Americans do celebrate Christmas and would not be offended by the nativity scene.

“Without Christmas, we would not be able to celebrate,” she said.

Derrick, describing herself as the troublemaker, said Rehoboth Beach was founded as a Christian seaside resort in 1873, making the nativity scene a part of the city’s history.

“That is in our state legislature law, and it’s still there today,” she said. “These things matter. Christmas does matter. The nativity scene does matter for the people of Rehoboth.”

At the conclusion of the public comment, Commissioner Lisa Schlosser asked what the next step was. Kuhns said he would speak with Lynn about the issue.

City Solicitor Glenn Mandalas quickly reminded everyone that before any decision would be made, a public hearing would have to be set, which requires a seven-day notice.

Before moving on to the posted agenda, the commissioners took a few minutes to wait for the people to leave, during which Kuhns, referencing the situation as a whole, said, “A black eye for the city.”