Holiday displays are now allowed on city property in Rehoboth Beach, so long as it’s the city doing the installing.
By a unanimous 7-0 vote, city commissioners voted to approve a policy Nov. 5 prohibiting private holiday displays on public property during the holiday season, defined as Nov. 15 through Jan. 15 in any given year.
However, commissioners also unanimously approved City Manager Sharon Lynn spending up to $10,000 on a holiday display that will be installed by the city.
There was little discussion by commissioners on the policy or the amount of money prior to the vote.
Commissioner Susan Gay said she thought it was a good idea to have the policy in place.
Commissioner Edward Chrzanowski said he thought the city’s future display may uplift the spirits of residents and visitors, while also celebrating the city’s diverse community.
The policy was passed in response to an ongoing disagreement 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. 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. In response, hundreds of church members gathered on the steps of city hall on a late-November afternoon to pray the rosary as a sign of protest. Then, in the days before Christmas, the Knights of Columbus threatened a lawsuit, claiming their First Amendment rights had been violated. City officials called their bluff and continued to deny placement of the nativity scene. Again, the figures were placed at Grotto Pizza.
The Knights of Columbus followed through with their threat in June. On behalf of the Knights, 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 claiming religious discrimination for the blanket ban of the crèche from city property.
More recently, Nov. 2, 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.
Commissioners held a 40-minute executive session related to the ongoing litigation prior to the passage of the holiday display ordinance. When the meeting resumed, Mayor Stan Mills said there had been no action items identified.
In an email Nov. 4, Krys Johnson, city spokesperson, said it would not be appropriate to comment while the litigation is ongoing.