While people may not be thinking about decking the halls with boughs of holly anytime soon, Friday afternoon marked the end of an almost yearlong legal dispute over one religious organization’s right to display a Nativity scene on city property.
Rehoboth Beach Commissioners unanimously approved a settlement agreement in response to a lawsuit that the Knights of Columbus Star of the Sea Council 7297, a Catholic fraternal organization, filed last June.
The organization alleged that the city violated its First Amendment and 14th Amendment rights by prohibiting the display of its Nativity scene at or near the Rehoboth Beach Bandstand.
City officials had asked St. Edmond Catholic Church to remove a Nativity scene it had installed at the bandstand in 2018 and 2019, according to earlier Delmarva Now/Sussex Countian reporting.
In 2019, then-Mayor Paul Kuhns said the city wanted to “stay as neutral as possible and let everyone celebrate the holiday season the way they see fit.”
The city responded to the lawsuit in August, saying that it had not violated any constitutional rights because it did not have a policy that prohibited religious displays, according to court documents.
Commissioners later approved a policy Dec. 7 that prohibits any private unattended displays on city property. This policy does not apply to unattended displays owned by the city.
In 2020, Rehoboth Beach displayed a holiday display that included an illuminated menorah, a Kwanzaa display, a snowman, lighted Christmas trees and a crèche it purchased in 2020 consisting of a wooden shelter and at least 10 statues.
In this recent settlement agreement, the city must include the Knights’ Nativity scene, or crèche, in its holiday display at the bandstand or the area around it for the next two Christmas seasons, specifically through December 2021 and December 2022.
If the crèche gets damaged at all during that time, the city is responsible for replacing it with a “crèche of equal or greater size,” according to the court document.
The city must also review any applications that the Knights submit for an attended holiday display, and it cannot “unreasonably” withhold approval of these applications.
Rehoboth Beach cannot pass any ordinances that violate these requirements unless ordered by a court or another law outside of the city. No current federal, state or local laws prohibit this agreement, the city representatives said in the agreement.
Emily Lytle covers Sussex County from the inland towns to the beaches. Got a story she should tell? Contact her at email@example.com or 302-332-0370. Follow her on Twitter at @emily3lytle.