Lynch v. Donnelly, 465 U.S. 668; 104 S. Ct. 1355; 79 L. Ed. 2d 604 (1984)

Lynch v. Donnelly, 465 U.S. 668; 104 S. Ct. 1355; 79 L. Ed. 2d 604 (1984)

Facts—Residents of Pawtucket, Rhode Island, and members of the American Civil Liberties Union challenged the city’s display of a nativity scene, or crèche, as part of a much larger display of Christmas symbols designed to enhance the holiday mood. They believed this violated the establishment clause of the First Amendment as applied to states and localities by the Fourteenth Amendment. The U.S. District Court permanently enjoined exclusion of the crèche, and the First U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed.

Question—Does Pawtucket’s inclusion of a nativity scene in a Christmas holiday display violate the establishment clause?


ReasonsC.J. Burger (5–4). Lemon v. Kurtzman, 503 U.S. 602 (1971) indicated that the purpose of the religion clauses of the First Amendment is “to prevent, as far as possible, the intrusion of either [the church or the state] into the precincts of the other.” Although the metaphor of a “wall” of separation can be useful, “No significant segment of our society and no institution within it can exist in a vacuum or in total or absolute isolation from all the other parts, much less from government.” The Court has permitted paid chaplains and has recognized the religious nature of the American people: “Our history is replete with official references to the value and invocation of Divine guidance in deliberations and pronouncements of the Founding Fathers and contemporary leaders.” Burger cites the phrase “In God We Trust” on U.S. coins and the words “One nation under God,” in the Pledge of Allegiance to the flag. The nativity scene must be judged in context. The scene has the valid secular purpose of celebrating and depicting the origin of the holiday, and this is no greater aid to religion than the provision of secular textbooks to religious schools and other practices that have been permitted. In this case administrative entanglement has been minimal, and, apart from this lawsuit, “there is no evidence of political friction or divisiveness over the crèche.” The crèche is a “passive symbol” that can hardly be understood as state endorsement of any religious beliefs.

J. O’Connor, concurring, did not believe the crèche at issue signaled “government endorsement or disapproval of religion.” Such endorsement would be wrong because it would send “a message to nonadherents that they are outsiders, not full members of the political community, and an accompanying message to adherents that they are insiders, favored members of the political community.” Here the display is much like the presence of religious paintings in a museum of art.

J. Brennan, dissenting, believes the decision is contrary to Lemon v. Kurtzman. The purpose was not secular but that announced by the mayor, of “[keeping] Christ in Christmas.” The display placed “the government’s imprimatur of approval on the particular religious beliefs exemplified by the crèche, and could lead to requests by other religious groups for inclusion of their symbols. The crèche’s placement in a much larger Christmas display cannot explain away its religious significance or its centrality within the display as a whole. This is different than simply recognizing a holiday in which individuals may be with their families. Brennan distinguished this display from examples of “ceremonial deism” like the words “In God We Trust” or the words “under God” in the flag salute. He further noted that Christmas was not widely celebrated at the time the Constitution was written and that public celebrations did not emerge until well into the nineteenth century. Religion is too personal and holy to be undertaken by public authorities.

J. Blackmun, dissenting, also argued that the central purpose of the display was the impermissible one of endorsing the Christian view of Christmas.

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