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Rehoboth Beach prevails in first nativity scene lawsuit decision

A Delaware court will not require Rehoboth Beach to display a privately owned crèche at the bandstand this year — but there's one there this year anyway.

The Knights of Columbus Star of the Sea Council 7297, a Catholic fraternal organization, filed a lawsuit against the city this summer after officials refused to allow the display of their crèche in 2018 and 2019.

The case has not yet been decided, so the Knights requested a preliminary injunction against the city Nov. 2, hoping to be able display the nativity scene this holiday season. It was denied Dec. 11 by U.S. District Court for the District of Delaware Judge Leonard P. Stark.

While Rehoboth Beach recently enacted a policy banning unattended displays by private entities on city property, the city itself erected this display at the bandstand.

In the lawsuit, the Knights allege the city denied their requests due to what they called a "no-religious-displays policy."

According to court documents, in 2019, the Knights emailed City Manager Sharon Lynne and asked, "The Knights can't put the crèche on the boardwalk or other public property because it's religious. Is that right?" Lynn replied, "[y]es correct."

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Rehoboth Beach contends the exchange with Lynn was only one part of a larger conversation and there was no official policy on holiday displays at the time.

The commissioners approved a policy Nov. 5 of this year banning all private holiday displays on city property from Nov. 15 to Jan. 15. They revised the policy Dec. 7 to clarify that the ban applied only to unattended displays.

The new policy was apparently part of the reason for Stark's denial of the injunction.

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"The motion is directed to a policy that no longer exists (if it ever did) ... the motion must be denied as moot," Stark wrote in his opinion. "It is also unripe. The Knights is free to apply to display an attended crèche, but it has not yet done so."

The new policy doesn't apply to the city itself. Rehoboth placed its own display on the bandstand Dec. 1, which includes a crèche, menorah, "Happy Kwanzaa" sign and a sign that says "The City of Rehoboth Beach is a place to celebrate the diverse, cultural, and ethnic heritages of its peoples!"

Stark ordered the Knights and city representatives to submit a proposed case schedule by Dec. 18. 

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Note: Rehoboth Beach temporarily removed the Christmas display at the bandstand due to forecasted high winds Dec. 15. The display will return as soon as weather permits and will be at the bandstand through January.