A nonprofit legal group is accusing a Delaware beach municipality of violating the First Amendment by banning a Catholic church’s nativity display from the bandstand circle at its town boardwalk.
The First Liberty Institute, a national legal group that defends First Amendment rights, sent a demand letter to leaders in the town of Rehoboth Beach on Thursday regarding the request by Saint Edmond Church and a local chapter of the Catholic fraternal organization Knights of Columbus.
According to the letter, a nativity scene had been part of the Christmas holiday tradition at the Bandstand circle in Rehoboth Beach for decades until 2018 when the city ordered that the crèche be removed on grounds that a religious display could not be located on public property.
The decision was not a popular one with residents. In October 2019, the church received a letter from the city manager explaining that the city met with the local chamber of commerce and arranged for the nativity scene to be placed on property leased by the chamber about a half-mile down the road from Bandstand circle.
But the church contends that the new location is completely removed from the site of the rest of the town’s Christmas traditions located in or around Bandstand circle.
On Nov. 18, Mayor Paul Kuhns said during a television interview that the “city policy is not to have religious displays on public property or city property.”
In late November, the Knights of Columbus emailed the city manager to ask if the nativity could be set up on a grassy area on the circle or on the boardwalk near the circle, similar to what the chamber of commerce does with its “Santa’s House.” However, those requests were also rejected.
“The Boardwalk is exceptionally large and wide, and the crèche is decidedly smaller than the Santa’s House,” the First Liberty Institute letter authored by senior counsel Roger Byron reads.
The attorney argued in his letter that viewpoint discrimination is prohibited by the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.
“It is well established that the speech protections of the First Amendment extend to displays like the crèche,” he wrote. “
“Even without a blanket ban on religious displays, the City’s prohibition of KOC’s religious Christmas display while allowing a secular Christmas display by another local organization is itself textbook viewpoint discrimination.”
Byron further added that “viewpoint discrimination is not justified by fear of an Establishment Clause violation.”
“The City has no grounds for claiming its unlawful policy and actions are justified by Establishment Clause concerns,” he wrote. “The U.S. Supreme Court…