REHOBOTH BEACH, Del. — “When Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea,” reads the Gospel for the feast of the Epiphany, “Magi from the east arrived in Jerusalem, saying, ‘Where is the newborn king of the Jews?’”

This month, in the popular Delaware coastal city of Rehoboth Beach, a crusading Catholic pastor has brought the Magi’s question to the forefront of the latest Yuletide debate over the constitutionality of a Nativity scene on public property.

“There’s a Christmas tree” on town property, “with no representation of Jesus Christ, yet Christmas is the celebration of Christ’s birth,” Father William Cocco, the pastor of St. Edmond Catholic Church in Rehoboth Beach, told the Register, echoing his robust defense of a long-established Nativity display that clashed with a new local policy and quickly ignited a media storm.

The dispute erupted Dec. 5, after members of St. Edmond’s parish organized a Nativity scene on town property earlier in the day.

In decades past, the crèche had enjoyed pride of place in the same spot, next to the town Christmas tree on Rehoboth Avenue near the boardwalk. The local Kiwanis Club had managed the installation of the foam figurines, and locals enjoyed singing carols before the crèche.

That tradition was disrupted when the town embarked on a lengthy renovation project, and the figures found a temporary home in a less visible location.

Father Cocco wanted to return the Nativity scene to its previous home, and he and Patty Derrick, a parishioner and local businesswoman, had sought and received what they understood to be informal permission to return the figures to town property.

However, the city manager, Sharon Lynn, also requested that Father Cocco contact representatives from other local religious groups to see if they wanted to take part in the display.

Father Cocco said that he did not think it was his place to facilitate the participation of other religious faiths on behalf of the city, but Derrick complied with the request.

She told the Register that the Protestant ministers she spoke with were happy with the crèche, and a Kwanzaa group said that most African-Americans were Christians and would support the display. A rabbi did not immediately return her call, and her contacts in Rehoboth’s small Muslim community saw no need to participate in the seasonal tradition.

Derrick believed that the Catholic parish had properly responded to the city manager’s instructions, and the crèche was installed on Dec. 5 by the Knights of Columbus.

 

Removal Order

Within hours, however, Lynn had directed the parish to remove the display; and the following day it was dismantled, stoking the ire of local residents.

“I am asking the City of Rehoboth Beach and Sharon Lynn to please reconsider,” wrote Derrick in a Dec. 7 letter to the editor in the Cape Gazette, the local paper.

“One more year without Christ in Christmas just does not bring our community back together. The spirit of giving and caring needs to be part of what we as citizens are all about, and especially during this blessed time of year.”

As the controversy quickly heated up and television news reporters bombarded Father Cocco with interview requests, Mayor Paul Kuhns insisted that the crèche’s location on city property had not been approved.

“There is plenty of room on church property for the Nativity display,” said the mayor.

 Father Cocco challenged that judgment.

“When you are a person of faith, you don’t step out of your faith” when you leave church. “You live your faith in the world,” he said, underscoring the need to challenge efforts to sideline religious faith from the public square.

“That is what Christ taught us.”

City officials did not return a request for comment to the Register. But they have since announced plans to formalize a new policy in time for the 2019 holiday season.

“Perhaps a group can be organized for next year and we can have an appropriate community gathering that is inclusive of all so that the City of Rehoboth Beach local government does not appear to endorse one particular religion,” Lynn wrote in an email to one news outlet.

 

Constitutionality Question

The city manager’s remarks reflect a common, if disputed, understanding of laws governing religious displays on public property.

“The holiday season has arrived, and along with it comes a cherished annual tradition — legal disputes over religious displays on public property,” quipped Howard Slugh in a Dec. 13 column for National Review’s legal blog, “Bench Memos,” which reviewed recent controversies in New Hampshire, New York and Illinois, among other states.

“With a crèche, the question is whether, given all of the circumstances, and all of the relevant context, the ‘reasonable observer’ would think that the government is ‘endorsing’ religion,” Richard Garnett, a professor at the University of Notre Dame Law School, told the Register.

“Certainly, the presence of ‘other’ symbols is helpful if one is trying to defend a crèche.”

Douglas Laycock, a leading expert on the Establishment Clause and related First Amendment issues at the University of Virginia Law School, identified two legal precedents that remain in force until the high court returns to this question.

“In Allegheny County v. ACLU, the Supreme Court found that a government crèche all by itself is unconstitutional,” Laycock told the Register in an email message.

In Lynch v. Donnelly, the high court ruled that a “crèche accompanied by ‘secular’ Christmas decorations is okay.” 

Looking ahead, Laycock suggested that “conservatives on the Supreme Court may overrule Allegheny County.”

That opportunity could arise this year, in the form of  The American Legion v. American Humanist Association, a case that tackles the constitutionality of  a cross-shaped memorial to World War I veterans.

Cross cases turn on “the same underlying issue” as crèche cases, explained Laycock.

“It is not about friendliness or hostility toward religions,” he said. “It is about treating all religions equally and with neutrality.” 

 

Yearning for Transcendence

But even as the justices prepare for a case that could bring new clarity to an emotional, if murky, constitutional matter, the furor generated by town policies that effectively banish the Holy Family from public celebrations of Christmas also points to an unsated appetite for “transcendence” in everyday life, and some Catholic commentators believe that is reason enough to push back.

“Lots of people who have no connection to Christianity smile, tip a glass, exchange gifts, get together with their families, and in countless small ways signal their loyalty to light, not darkness,” R.R. “Rusty” Reno, the editor of First Things, told the Register, as he reflected on the “joy” of the Christmas season.

As Christians, he said, “we don’t need crèches in our town squares. We go to Mass in Advent. We welcome Christ in our homes.”

“But our fellow citizens? The secularists who campaign to remove Nativity scenes flatten the Christmas season, depriving the unchurched of those intimations of transcendence that make the season sparkle,” said Reno.

Father Cocco echoed this point and said the controversy had led him to ponder George Washington’s Proclamation for Thanksgiving, where the first U.S. president affirms the “duty of all Nations to acknowledge the providence of Almighty God.”

Likewise, he questioned why local officials were so concerned with the display of religious symbols on public property when the city of Rehoboth Beach, whose name comes from the Hebrew word for “open spaces,” was founded in 1873 by Methodists and has continued to enjoy a vibrant and diverse religious culture.   

 

Grotto Nativity

But the pastor, a former police officer who entered the priesthood later in life, believes that Catholics also “need to stand up for our faith.”

“If you don’t have Jesus, you don’t have Christmas,” he said, taking another opportunity to transmit his central message.

Indeed, Father Cocco’s willingness to challenge the city’s policies has led some local businesses to make some changes to their own practices. And at least for this year, the banished Nativity figures have found a new home on the property of a local restaurant, Grotto Pizza, while other businesses have posted images of the Nativity on bar windows and other unexpected places around town.

“This is the reason for the season, and it has been pushed aside,” Vinnie DiNatale, the marketing director for Grotto Pizza, told the Register. “We want to bring it to the forefront.”

Joan Frawley Desmond is a Register senior editor.

This story was updated Dec. 20 to correct the spelling of St. Edmond.

The Register regrets the error.