No Knights of Columbus nativity at Bandstand this year

Judge rules Rehoboth’s new display policy treats all private entities the same
December 15, 2020

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

Rehoboth Beach’s Knights of Columbus Star of the Sea Council may or may not install a crèche somewhere in time for Christmas this year, but a recent court ruling all but assures it won’t be on city-owned property.

In an opinion Dec. 11, U.S. District Court Chief Judge Leonard P. Stark denied a motion filed by the Knights requesting the court issue a preliminary injunction requiring the city to allow them to display a crèche on city-owned property. 

The judge’s ruling is the latest in a dispute entering its third Christmas season. Two years ago, the Knights placed a nativity scene by the Bandstand; it was removed days later. Last year, the city continued to deny the church placement of the nativity scene near the Bandstand.

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.

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.

Days before the filing of the preliminary injunction request, the city commissioners approved a policy prohibiting all private holiday displays on city-owned property for the 2020 holiday season. The policy was updated Dec. 7, to prohibit all private entities from erecting any unattended displays on city-owned property, year-round.

“The preliminary injunction motion must be denied because the plaintiff has failed to show it will suffer irreparable harm between now and the time of trial,” said Stark in his opinion. “There is no evidence the city currently has an anti-religious-displays policy in place; if it ever had one, it was revoked by the adoption of the revised policy.”

City Manager Sharon Lynn said the city has a long history of support for religious diversity and inclusiveness.

“It’s in that spirit of inclusiveness that we recognize the Knights’ right to have this matter decided in a court of law,” said Lynn, in a prepared statement announcing the decision. “We are, however, grateful that today’s favorable decision validates the city’s commitment to the equal treatment of all individuals.”

First Liberty Senior Counsel Roger Byron is representing the Knights through the legal proceedings. In an email Dec. 13, he said he and the Knights are pleased the city has responded to their actions by returning a crèche to the community’s holiday display, and by assuring the court and the Knights that the city will administer a lawful display policy.

“We look forward to more favorable results as the litigation continues,” said Byron.   

Looking forward, City Solicitor Glenn Mandalas said he expects the lawsuit to proceed on a normal schedule, which means nothing of significance is expected to take place in the near term. What remains is the court’s review of the city’s actions in 2018 and 2019, and those past actions will not create the urgency the 2020 holiday season created, he said in an email Dec. 13.

According to the order associated with Stark’s opinion, the city and the Knights shall submit a proposed scheduling order for the remaining lawsuit no later than Friday, Dec. 18.

Editor’s note: This story has been updated with new pictures.

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