DOVER, Delaware — A Catholic fraternal organization is suing a popular Delaware beach resort in federal court over its decision to end a decadeslong practice of allowing the display of a Christmas Nativity scene on public property.
The Knights of Columbus Star of the Sea Council contends that the 2018 decision by Rehoboth Beach officials violates constitutional guarantees of free speech and the free exercise of religion.
The lawsuit, filed Tuesday, contends that city officials have refused to allow the Nativity scene on public property while allowing secular holiday displays, including a Santa house sponsored by the local chamber of commerce on the town’s boardwalk.
“By prohibiting private organizations from displaying religious holiday messages on city property, while simultaneously allowing private organizations to display secular holiday messages, defendants’ policy facially discriminates against religious viewpoints in violation of the First Amendment,” the lawsuit states.
Rehoboth Beach city solicitor Glenn Mandalas expressed disappointment over the filing of the lawsuit. He said officials have tried to come up with an acceptable compromise, including an offer by the chamber to display the Nativity scene, or crèche, on public property it leases from the city.
“The city intends to defend the litigation but finds it unfortunate that the plaintiffs were not willing to engage in meaningful dialogue that could have resulted in a solution acceptable to all involved,” Mandalas said in an email.
The Knights of Columbus note that the chamber property is more than a half mile from the Rehoboth Beach bandstand, the traditional site of holiday displays.
According to the lawsuit, the city previously had allowed the display of a crèche depicting the birth of Jesus Christ since the 1930s. The traditional location was the bandstand, a popular entertainment and gathering area adjacent to the boardwalk. Several years ago, however, the display was moved to a nearby location because of renovations to the bandstand area.
“The Knights of Columbus is not aware of a single complaint about the crèche across its eight-decade history,” the lawsuit states.
But after the group set up a Nativity scene at the bandstand in December 2018, city officials immediately ordered it taken down. Local officials had received a letter from the Anti-Defamation League weeks earlier warning against religious displays on public property.
Mayor Paul Kuhns read from the letter at a public meeting one day after the display was taken down.
“Religious displays on public property can be deeply divisive, making members of religious minority groups feel uncomfortable and unwelcome,” the letter reads.
“It’s important to be sensitive to the needs and feelings of all members of our religiously diverse society,” the letter adds.
The ADL told officials that allowing a crèche on public property would be problematic unless it were only a small part of a much larger display that included nonreligious symbols such as snowflakes and reindeer.
The decision by city officials to ban the Nativity scene prompted angry phone calls and emails, according to records obtained by The Associated Press last year through a Freedom of Information Act request.
“I returned a call today to a church requesting information about the nativity, and the first person I spoke with told me there was a special place in hell for me. I can’t imagine what they say to you in person!” city spokeswoman Krys Johnson wrote in an email to Kuhns. “Send the haters my way,” she added.
“What kills me is that these people call themselves Christians,” Kuhns responded. “They are so hypocritical.”
According to the lawsuit, after the Knights of Columbus took over responsibility for the crèche from a local Kiwanis club, Father William Cocco of Saint Edmond Catholic church asked Kuhns and City Manager Sharon Lynn for permission to place it back at the bandstand in 2018. Cocco understood from their comments that the crèche would be allowed as long as other religious groups were given the opportunity to be part of the display.
The lawsuit claims Saint Edmond reached out to other religious groups but that none expressed interest in participating in the display. The Knights then erected the Nativity scene, but Lynn ordered it removed the next day.
City officials similarly denied permission for the Nativity scene to be displayed at the bandstand last year.
“The Knights can’t put the crèche on the boardwalk or other public property because it’s religious. Is that right?” the group’s Christmas activities coordinator asked Lynn in an email seeking clarification.
“Yes correct,” Lynn replied.