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Lynch v Donnelly: Christmas Displays on Government Property

5 March 1984
Original Photograph of Nativity Display at Pawtucket, RI

The Supreme Court first addressed the constitutionality of public religious displays in 1980 when it reviewed a Kentucky law requiring public schools to display the Ten Commandments in classrooms.The court determined that the Kentucky measure amounted to government sponsorship of religion and was therefore unconstitutional. According to the court, the law violated the First Amendment’s Establishment Clause, which prohibits government from establishing a religion and from favoring one religion over another, or from favoring religion generally over nonreligious beliefs. 
Four years later, the court took up its first case that specifically involved holiday displays. In that case, the court ruled that a Christmas nativity scene that the city of Pawtucket, R.I., had placed in a municipal square was constitutionally acceptable.The court stated that the nativity scene simply recognized the historical origins of the holiday, one that has secular as well as religious significance. In those circumstances, the justices concluded, the RELIGION AND THE COURTS: THE PILLARS OF CHURCH-STATE LAW nativity scene did not reflect an effort by the government to promote Christianity. [Pew]

Lynch v. Donnelly, 465 U.S. 668 (1984)

Argued October 4, 1983

Decided March 5, 1984




The city of Pawtucket, R.I., annually erects a Christmas display in a park owned by a nonprofit organization and located in the heart of the city's shopping district. The display includes, in addition to such objects as a Santa Claus house, a Christmas tree, and a banner that reads "SEASONS GREETINGS," a creche or Nativity scene, which has been part of this annual display for 40 years or more. Respondents brought an action in Federal District Court, challenging the inclusion of the creche in the display on the ground that it violated the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment, as made applicable to the states by the Fourteenth Amendment. The District Court upheld the challenge and permanently enjoined the city from including the creche in the display. The Court of Appeals affirmed.

Held: Notwithstanding the religious significance of the creche, Pawtucket has not violated the Establishment Clause. Pp. 465 U. S. 672-687.

(a) The concept of a "wall" of separation between church and state is a useful metaphor, but is not an accurate description of the practical aspects of the relationship that in fact exists. The Constitution does not require complete separation of church and state; it affirmatively mandates accommodation, not merely tolerance, of all religions, and forbids hostility toward any. Anything less would require the "callous indifference," Zorach v. Clauson, 343 U. S. 306, 343 U. S. 314, that was never intended by the Establishment Clause. Pp. 465 U. S. 672-673.

(b) This Court's interpretation of the Establishment Clause comports with the contemporaneous understanding of the Framers' intent. That neither the draftsmen of the Constitution, who were Members of the First Congress, nor the First Congress itself saw any establishment problem in employing Chaplains to offer daily prayers in the Congress is a striking example of the accommodation of religious beliefs intended by the Framers. Pp. 465 U. S. 673-674.

(c) Our history is pervaded by official acknowledgment of the role of religion in American life, and equally pervasive is evidence of accommodation of all faiths and all forms of religious expression and hostility toward none. Pp. 465 U. S. 674-678.

Page 465 U. S. 669

(d) Rather than taking an absolutist approach in applying the Establishment Clause and mechanically invalidating all governmental conduct or statutes that confer benefits or give special recognition to religion in general or to one faith, this Court has scrutinized challenged conduct or legislation to determine whether, in reality, it establishes a religion or religious faith or tends to do so. In the line-drawing process called for in each case, it has often been found useful to inquire whether the challenged law or conduct has a secular purpose, whether its principal or primary effect is to advance or inhibit religion, and whether it creates an excessive entanglement of government with religion. But this Court has been unwilling to be confined to any single test or criterion in this sensitive area. Pp. 465 U. S. 678-679.

(e) Here, the focus of the inquiry must be on the creche in the context of the Christmas season. Focus exclusively on the religious component of any activity would inevitably lead to its invalidation under the Establishment Clause. Pp. 465 U. S. 679-680.

(f) Based on the record in this case, the city has a secular purpose for including the creche in its Christmas display, and has not impermissibly advanced religion or created an excessive entanglement between religion and government. The display is sponsored by the city to celebrate the Holiday recognized by Congress and national tradition and to depict the origins of that Holiday; these are legitimate secular purposes. Whatever benefit to one faith or religion or to all religions inclusion of the creche in the display effects, is indirect, remote, and incidental, and is no more an advancement or endorsement of religion than the congressional and executive recognition of the origins of Christmas, or the exhibition of religious paintings in governmentally supported museums. This Court is unable to discern a greater aid to religion from the inclusion of the creche than from the substantial benefits previously held not violative of the Establishment Clause. As to administrative entanglement, there is no evidence of contact with church authorities concerning the content or design of the exhibition prior to or since the city's purchase of the creche. No expenditures for maintenance of the creche have been necessary, and, since the city owns the creche, now valued at $200, the tangible material it contributes is de minimis. Political divisiveness alone cannot serve to invalidate otherwise permissible conduct, and, in any event, apart from the instant litigation, there is no evidence of political friction or divisiveness over the creche in the 40-year history of the city's Christmas celebration. Pp. 465 U. S. 680-685.

(g) It would be ironic if the inclusion of the creche in the display, as part of a celebration of an event acknowledged in the Western World for 20 centuries, and in this country by the people, the Executive Branch,

Page 465 U. S. 670

Congress, and the courts for 2 centuries, would so "taint" the exhibition as to render it violative of the Establishment Clause. To forbid the use of this one passive symbol while hymns and carols are sung and played in public places including schools, and while Congress and state legislatures open public sessions with prayers, would be an overreaction contrary to this Nation's history and this Court's holdings. Pp. 465 U. S. 685-686.

691 F.2d 1029, reversed.

BURGER, C.J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which WHITE, POWELL, REHNQUIST, and O'CONNOR, JJ., joined. O'CONNOR, J., filed a concurring opinion, post, p. 465 U. S. 687. BRENNAN, J., filed a dissenting opinion, in which MARSHALL, BLACKMUN, and STEVENS, JJ., joined, post, p. 465 U. S. 694. BLACKMUN, J., filed a dissenting opinion, in which STEVENS, J., joined, post, p. 465 U. S. 726.

CHIEF JUSTICE BURGER delivered the opinion of the Court.

We granted certiorari to decide whether the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment prohibits a municipality

Page 465 U. S. 671

from including a creche, or Nativity scene, in its annual Christmas display.


Each year, in cooperation with the downtown retail merchants' association, the city of Pawtucket, R.I., erects a Christmas display as part of its observance of the Christmas holiday season. The display is situated in a park owned by a nonprofit organization and located in the heart of the shopping district. The display is essentially like those to be found in hundreds of towns or cities across the Nation -- often on public grounds -- during the Christmas season. The Pawtucket display comprises many of the figures and decorations traditionally associated with Christmas, including, among other things, a Santa Claus house, reindeer pulling Santa's sleigh, candy-striped poles, a Christmas tree, carolers, cutout figures representing such characters as a clown, an elephant, and a teddy bear, hundreds of colored lights, a large banner that reads "SEASONS GREETINGS," and the creche at issue here. All components of this display are owned by the city.

The creche, which has been included in the display for 40 or more years, consists of the traditional figures, including the Infant Jesus, Mary and Joseph, angels, shepherds, kings, and animals, all ranging in height from 5" to 5'. In 1973, when the present creche was acquired, it cost the city $1,365; it now is valued at $200. The erection and dismantling of the creche costs the city about $20 per year; nominal expenses are incurred in lighting the creche. No money has been expended on its maintenance for the past 10 years.

Respondents, Pawtucket residents and individual members of the Rhode Island affiliate of the American Civil Liberties Union, and the affiliate itself, brought this action in the United States District Court for Rhode Island, challenging the city's inclusion of the creche in the annual display. The District Court held that the city's inclusion of the creche in the display violates the Establishment Clause, 525 F.Supp. 1150, 1178 (1981), which is binding on the states through the

Page 465 U. S. 672

Fourteenth Amendment. The District Court found that, by including the creche in the Christmas display, the city has "tried to endorse and promulgate religious beliefs," id. at 1173, and that "erection of the creche has the real and substantial effect of affiliating the City with the Christian beliefs that the creche represents." Id. at 1177. This "appearance of official sponsorship," it believed, "confers more than a remote and incidental benefit on Christianity." Id. at 1178. Last, although the court acknowledged the absence of administrative entanglement, it found that excessive entanglement has been fostered as a result of the political divisiveness of including the creche in the celebration. Id. at 1179-1180. The city was permanently enjoined from including the creche in the display.

A divided panel of the Court of Appeals for the First Circuit affirmed. 691 F.2d 1029 (1982). We granted certiorari, 460 U.S. 1080 (1983), and we reverse.

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