Policy change prohibits unattended displays such as nativity scenes on The Circle

GEORGETOWN — Unattended displays, such as nativity scenes that sparked debate in Rehoboth Beach, are no longer permitted on The Circle in Georgetown.

A 2019 change in town code regarding The Circle’s usage policy now prohibits standing or unattended structures or displays in the picturesque heart of the town.

“No unattended displays are permitted on The Circle any longer,” said Georgetown Town Manager Eugene Dvornick. “It could be anything that is unattended — posters, signs or where somebody comes up and sets up a display or a table and leaves information. It would have to be attended the entire time.”

Town code authorizes the town manager to remove any display that violates this provision.

“Most of it is from a safety standpoint, as we have been seeing more and more winds, stuff blowing out from The Circle in the traffic lane,” Mr. Dvornick said. “Most of it’s for protection and safety.”

During the 2018 Christmas season, a nativity scene was placed in The Circle by the Georgetown Wesleyan Church, Mr. Dvornick said. It was permitted at that time, but, under the revised policy enacted by council earlier this year, is no longer allowed unless it is attended.

About a year ago, controversy arose in Rehoboth Beach when the city ordered the removal of a nativity scene on the Boardwalk Bandstand because it does not permit religious displays on city property.

In late November, more than 150 people, mostly Catholic protesters, assembled outside Rehoboth City Hall to request city officials reverse the ban and allow the display. Rev. William Cocco of St. Edmond Catholic Church asked city commissioners to let the nativity return to its “proper place” at bandstand.

As of Tuesday morning, Mr. Dvornick said there has been no backlash regarding Georgetown’s policy change.
“I’m sure that it’s like anything, that there will be people that support it, people that oppose it and some people that aren’t impacted either way,” he said. “So far, I have not had any feedback.”

Georgetown’s revised code states it “is unlawful for any person to place or maintain an unattended display in The Circle (any item, including a picture, statue, symbol, or similar item, that is intended to serve or be seen as a visual depiction or expression where the person sponsoring or responsible for the placement or maintenance of the display is not in attendance or in close proximity to the item displayed).”

As a result, a person may not affix any poster, sign or other object to trees, monuments, street signs, benches and other objects in The Circe.
Georgetown’s prohibition for unattended displays does not apply to displays placed by the town or other government entities for government purposes or to signs authorized by town code. However, approval of the town manager must be obtained prior to any placement.

Elsewhere in Kent, Sussex
In a sampling of downstate Delaware, municipalities reported they have not encountered any controversy associated with religious displays on government-owned property.

Millsboro Town Manager Sheldon Hudson does not recall grappling with an issue like the one Rehoboth Beach saw.
“That has never really come up since I’ve been here. We’ve never had to deal with the issue,” he said. “Certainly, the town understands why other cities take a different approach. We tend to take the ‘more versus less’ approach.”

All displays at Millsboro Town Center are provided by the town, Mr. Hudson noted.
If the town were approached about placing a religious display on town property, Mr. Hudson said he would probably present the request “to council and have town attorney review, especially with it being such a hot potato right now and so sensitive.”

Dagsboro, Seaford, Bridgeville and Ocean View each reported no laws or past problems with religious displays.
“We just have an internal policy that we don’t allow anyone to put any signage on town property, without prior approval,” said Bridgeville Town Manager Jesse Savage. “Since I have been here no one has ever attempted or requested to put that type of display. There is no ordinance, nothing in our code that prevents it or addresses it currently.”

Kent County Levy Court does not a formal policy on religious displays, according to a spokeswoman, who said she was unaware of any related problems arising at county headquarters.
A spokeswoman for Dover wrote in an email the city has or will put up decorations for the upcoming Christmas holiday, such as lights and a Christmas tree, but lacks an official ordinance.

“Living in a diverse community we are fortunate enough to have representation from almost all organizations and churches and have confidence that they depict our community very well as a whole for the City of Dover,” Kay Sass said.

Controversy in Rehoboth
According to Rehoboth Beach Mayor Paul Kuhns, part of the issue with the nativity scene stemmed from a misunderstanding and misinformation.
“Going back to last year there was a miscommunication between the parties as far as being able to put the nativity scene — I think it was the Catholic church that put it up, St. Edmond’s — at the bandstand,” Mayor Kuhns said. “There was a conversation, and the next day the nativity scene just appeared.

“Unfortunately, the group that put up the nativity scene did not get permission and did not get a permit. Because we have a policy about religious displays on public property, we asked them to take it down and it was taken down. A lot of people were up in arms about it last year and certain facts got lost in translation.”

As a follow-up, the city met with local religious leaders in attempts to plan for 2019.
“It turned out they wanted to have the opportunity to share and be inclusive. The only thing that we heard of was that the manger, or this creche, would come up again,” said Mayor Kuhns.

Most of the leaders that met with Rehoboth City Manager Sharon Lynn “really had no inclination to go one way or the other,” according to the mayor.
For the second year in a row, the Rehoboth Beach-Dewey Beach Chamber of Commerce offered to host the nativity scene in front of a building it leases.

“The city manager made that offer from the chamber to St. Edmond’s Church back in October. They did have a protest vigil, very peaceful out in front of city hall a week or so ago,” Mayor Kuhns said. “And again, there has never been any kind of answer coming out of St. Edmond’s to the offer that was made by the chamber that was signed off on by the city.”

“What is interesting is the property that the chamber has offered is right next door to where the creche was placed for probably 12 or 13 years,” he said adding the city offered to stop parking permit in front of the chamber “so it would be very visible as you drive into town on Rehoboth Avenue.”

Before 2018, the display had not been at the bandstand for more than a decade, the mayor said.
“A lot of people have been throwing out the false facts, if you will, about historically of how it’s always been at the bandstand. That is just not the case,” said Mayor Kuhns.

“Factually, the city has never said there can’t be any kind of religious displays in the city of Rehoboth.
“I’m all for it on private property. People are entitled to do whatever they’d like on private property. However, on public property the city needs to remain neutral.”

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