Rehoboth marks multiple holidays with displays following lawsuit

REHOBOTH BEACH — The city of Rehoboth Beach, a recent winner in a court ruling against a local Catholic fraternal service order that sought to place its crèche on city-owned property, is taking an all-inclusive approach for the holiday season.

A multifaceted display at the city’s bandstand features a city-owned Nativity, as well as other religious/holiday symbols, including items signifying Hanukkah and Kwanzaa.

“The city wanted to do that obviously to make sure it would be as inclusive as possible,” said Rehoboth Beach Communications Specialist Krys Johnson.

Citing recent city policy, on Friday, Chief Judge Leonard P. Stark of the U.S. District Court for Delaware denied a motion filed by the Knights of Columbus’ Star of the Sea Council, which sought a preliminary injunction requiring Rehoboth Beach to allow the Knights to display a crèche on city property.

The Knights of Columbus council sued Rehoboth Beach for prohibiting it from displaying a Nativity on city property in 2018 and 2019 because it is a religious symbol. The Knights are represented by the First Liberty Institute.

The city of Rehoboth Beach denied that there was ever a “no religious displays” policy or any policy on holiday displays until Nov. 5 of this year, when it issued a policy prohibiting “all private holiday displays on city-owned property for the 2020 holiday season.”

First Liberty argues, however, that the new policy is unconstitutional under the First Amendment.

On Dec. 7, Rehoboth Beach commissioners revised the Nov. 5 policy to prohibit all private entities from erecting any unattended displays on city-owned property, year-round, including at the Rehoboth Beach Bandstand and on the boardwalk.

“We’re pleased the city has responded to the lawsuit and the preliminary injunction motion by returning a crèche to the community’s holiday display and by assuring the court and the Knights that it will administer a lawful display policy,” said Roger Byron, senior counsel for First Liberty Institute. “We look forward to more favorable results as the litigation continues.”

Because of the Dec. 7 adoption of Rehoboth Beach’s policy barring all unattended displays, the court found that the Knights of Columbus’ request for an injunction in relation to the alleged “no religious displays” policy was moot because it had been replaced by the Nov. 5 and Dec. 7 policies, if it existed at all.

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

The court also found that the Dec. 7 policy treated all private persons, groups and organizations equally, regardless of religious or nonreligious affiliation, and that nothing in the city’s current policy singled out the prohibition of any displays based on religion.

The Dec. 7 policy spells out the city’s intention. “The city has something in writing that says what they are doing,” said Ms. Johnson. “That is where the city is right now.”

For decades, a free-standing crèche has been part of the holiday tradition in Rehoboth Beach, primarily located in the area around the city’s bandstand and boardwalk.

But in 2018 and 2019, city officials prohibited the Knights from including a crèche as part of the display because it is a religious symbol. The Knights filed a lawsuit against the city in June 2020, claiming religious discrimination.