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People portraying Sinterklaas, the Dutch version of Santa Claus, and his ‘Black Pete’ sidekicks arrive by steamboat in Hoorn, northwestern Netherlands, on Nov. 16, 2013.

PETER DEJONG/ASSOCIATED PRESS

The Netherlands' highest administrative court refused Wednesday to wade into the increasingly acrimonious national debate around "Black Pete," the sidekick to the Dutch equivalent of Santa Claus.

Opponents call Pete, who is often played by white people wearing blackface makeup and a frizzy Afro wig, a racist caricature. Most Dutch people insist he is a harmless fantasy figure.

The Council of State on Wednesday overturned a lower court's decision that Amsterdam municipality shouldn't have allowed last year's festive arrival of Sinterklaas in the city because Pete "forms a negative stereotyping of black people."

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Council of State President Jaap Polak said Amsterdam's mayor isn't empowered to take the issue into account when granting permits for the celebrations.

That ruling means that the Council of State "cannot and will not answer the question" of whether Black Pete breaches Dutch anti-discrimination law, Polak told a packed courtroom.

The ruling said that opponents could instead file civil or criminal complaints against organizers – shifting the debate to other courts and possibly opening the door to such complaints from opponents around the country.

"I think a lot of people will be disappointed with that – supporters and opponents who were waiting for a judgment on what we should think of Black Pete," said Wil Eikelboom, a lawyer for opponents of Pete.

In the Dutch Sinterklaas festival, St. Nicholas arrives by steamboat in mid-November and spends a month in the country accompanied by dozens of Petes, clown-like figures who leave cookies, chocolate and other treats for children. The celebrations end in a night of gift-giving on Dec. 5.

St. Nicholas is due to officially "arrive" in the country on Saturday in the central city of Gouda. The city's mayor has said some of the Petes in the parade will be yellow-faced "Cheese Petes" and "Cookie Petes." That appears intended to accommodate the views of Black Pete opponents.

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