Last year, in the weeks before Christmas, Rehoboth Beach’s Knights of Columbus Star of the Sea Council threatened a lawsuit against the city if they were not allowed to place a crèche on or immediately adjacent to the Bandstand or Boardwalk.
Staying true to their word, a lawsuit filed June 25 on behalf of the organization in the U.S. District Court of Delaware claims religious discrimination for the blanket ban of the crèche from city property.
First Liberty Institute, a nonprofit law firm specializing in religious liberty cases, filed the complaint. In a press release announcing the lawsuit, attorney Roger Byron, senior counsel for First Liberty, said the Knights of Columbus simply wants to continue a beloved tradition.
“It is perfectly lawful to have a crèche on public property, and blatantly unlawful to ban it,” said Byron.
This nativity scene has a long history in Rehoboth Beach. For decades, the local Kiwanis Club annually installed the foam figurines near the Boardwalk. In the late 2000s, during streetscape construction, the nativity moved up the street to the front lawn of M&T Bank.
Two years ago, without permission from the city, St. Edmond Catholic Church members placed the 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 Grotto Pizza on Rehoboth Avenue.
Last year, the Knights of Columbus requested placement of the nativity at the Bandstand again, and again the city denied the request before the nativity ended back at Grotto Pizza for the second year in a row.
Both years, the Rehoboth Beach-Dewey Beach Chamber of Commerce has offered the front lawn of its administrative office, 306 Rehoboth Ave., as a potential home for the nativity.
In the lawsuit, First Liberty claims the city’s policy of prohibiting religious messages on public property constitutes viewpoint-based discrimination in violation of the free speech clause of the First Amendment.
In an email June 25, Mayor Paul Kuhns said the city’s stance has not changed on the issue. Referencing a letter written in December by city solicitor Glenn Mandalas in response to last year’s complaint, Kuhns said the city worked closely with the chamber of commerce to identify a prominent location on the city's most traveled street to permit religious and secular displays of any and all varieties.
“It is unfortunate that this issue has resurfaced when the city and our community are going through the social and economic upheaval caused by the COVID-19 pandemic,” said Kuhns.