Delaware Nativity Scene | Cases | First Liberty

Christmas Tradition

For as long as anyone can remember, reportedly since the 1930s, a free-standing crèche, or nativity, has been part of the Christmas holiday tradition on the town circle in Rehoboth Beach, Delaware. Most recently and for many years the crèche was owned and placed by a local public service club. Other yearly holiday displays on-site include a Christmas tree, holiday lights and light displays, and a large Santa’s House on the Boardwalk erected, owned and displayed by the local Chamber of Commerce.

The creche’s traditional location is on the town circle but because of construction was temporarily moved to an alternate location, until last year, when Saint Edmond Church, supported by the Star of the Sea Council 7297 (the Rehoboth Beach Council of the Knights of Columbus) asked the City for permission to place the crèche back on the town circle for the 2018 holiday season. Understanding it had permission, KOC placed the crèche on a small grassy area on the circle.

Nativity Banned

The next day the City called the Church and ordered the crèche removed.

This decision proved unpopular with many Rehoboth Beach residents, but city officials maintained the ban on the nativity. The City consistently made clear the crèche could not be on public property because of its religious nature.

This November, during a television interview about the crèche, Rehoboth Beach Mayor Paul Kuhns again reiterated the City’s anti-religion animus, saying the “city policy is not to have religious displays [like the crèche] on public property or city property.” Star of the Sea Council asked the City if they could at least place a crèche on the Boardwalk near the town circle, like the Chamber of Commerce is allowed to do with its Santa’s House.

But a city official responded that the Boardwalk is public property, and reiterated that city policy prohibits the crèche from placement on the Boardwalk or any other public property because it is religious.

The city policy comes despite long-standing U.S. Supreme Court opinions that even government-sponsored creches are lawful in holiday displays with secular and religious components and that religious discrimination is unlawful.

First Liberty, on behalf of the Star of the Sea Council 7297 sent a letter to the City urging officials to change their policy to align with the Supreme Court and allow the nativity, but the City didn’t act.

So in June of 2020, on behalf of the local Knights of Columbus council, First Liberty Institute, Jones Day, and Morton, Valihura & Zerbato, LLC, filed a federal lawsuit against the City, claiming religious discrimination for the town’s blanket ban of a Knights of Columbus crèche, or Nativity, from city property.

“The Knights of Columbus simply wants to continue a beloved tradition of this town,” said Roger Byron, Senior Counsel for First Liberty Institute. “It is perfectly lawful to have a crèche on public property, and blatantly unlawful to ban it.”

News Release
For Immediate Release: 6.23.20
Contact: Lacey McNiel, media@firstliberty.org
Direct: 972-941-4453

Delaware Town that Banned Nativity Scene from Annual Christmas Display Sued by Knights of Columbus

Rehoboth Beach, DE—Today, on behalf of the local Knights of Columbus council, First Liberty Institute, Jones Day, and Morton, Valihura & Zerbato, LLC, filed a federal lawsuit against the City of Rehoboth Beach, Delaware, claiming religious discrimination for the town’s blanket ban of a Knights of Columbus crèche, or Nativity, from city property.

You can read the complaint, here.

“The Knights of Columbus simply wants to continue a beloved tradition of this town,” said Roger Byron, Senior Counsel for First Liberty Institute. “It is perfectly lawful to have a crèche on public property, and blatantly unlawful to ban it.”

For decades, a free-standing crèche has been part of the Christmas holiday tradition in Rehoboth Beach. The primary location for Christmas displays is the circle at the city bandstand and adjacent boardwalk, and traditional displays include a crèche, a Christmas tree, holiday lights and light displays, and a large Santa’s House. The local Knights of Columbus council is continuing the tradition of the crèche display, but beginning in 2018 city officials banned the crèche from city property because it is religious.

In its lawsuit, First Liberty claims, “The City’s policy of prohibiting religious messages on public property—both facially and as applied—constitutes viewpoint-based discrimination in violation of the Free Speech Clause of the First Amendment. 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.”

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About First Liberty Institute

First Liberty Institute is a non-profit public interest law firm and the largest legal organization in the nation dedicated exclusively to defending religious freedom for all Americans.

To arrange an interview, contact Lacey McNiel at media@firstliberty.org or by calling 972-941-4453.


12.12.19 – News Release

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