Brief Fact Summary.
There were two holiday displays in downtown Pittsburgh on public property: a Christian Nativity scene in one location and a Chanukah menorah next to a Christmas tree in another. The ACLU sued the County, arguing that both displays violated the First Amendment.
Synopsis of Rule of Law.
The relevant question for Establishment Clause inquiries is whether the government action has the effect of endorsing a faith (or multiple faiths) or is simply recognizing something broader, that has a secular status in society.
For example, when located in a public school, such a display might raise additional constitutional considerations.View Full Point of Law
There were two holiday displays in downtown Pittsburgh on public property: a Christian Nativity scene in the courthouse and a Chanukah menorah next to a Christmas tree outside the City-County Building. The ACLU sued the County, arguing that both displays violated the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment. The the Third Circuit found for the ACLU on both displays. The Supreme Court agreed that the Nativity display was a constitutional violation, but reversed the judgement regarding the menorah.
Do the county’s decorations (a creche and a menorah) violate the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment?
Yes and no. The creche violates the Establishment Clause, but the menorah with Christmas tree does not.
Yes, the creche in the courthouse is a violation of the Establishment Clause because it conveys a message that Christianity is the official religion of the community.
And yes, the menorah is acceptable under the Establishment Clause, but not for the reasons in the judgement. The question should instead be about whether the city is sending a message of pluralism (which it is) rather than endorsement of one (or two) beliefs.
Justice Brennan (with Marshall and Stevens)
Yes, the creche is a violation, but so should be the menorah and the Christmas tree. They are all endorsements of a religion.
Justice Stevens (with Brennan and Marshall)
Establishment Clause should create a strong presumption against all religious symbols on public property. Some devout Christians and Jewish people actually want these symbols to be in places of worship, and not in public. Either way, the symbols generate conflict, which is what the Establishment Clause is there to avoid.
Justice Kennedy (with Rehnquist, White, and Scalia)
The creche and menorah are both actually constitutional. The Establishment Clause does not require hostility toward all religion, but rather, gives the ability to celebrate many different religions.
The Establishment Clause means that the government may not promote or affiliate itself with any religious doctrine or organization, discriminate among people of different religious beliefs on the basis of those beliefs, delegate a governmental power to a religious organization, or involve itself too deeply in a religious organization’s affairs. Recent precedent has focused on whether a governmental action “endorses” a certain religion. “Endorse” has meant “conveying or attempting to convey a message that religion or religious belief is favored or preferred.”
Lynch v. Donnelly (1984) held that inclusion of Christmas decorations including a Nativity scene in a private park near a shopping district did not have the effect of endorsing religion, and therefore did not violate the Establishment Clause.
The creche stood alone, and its message is one of religion. It does not have any secular meaning.
The menorah was next to a Christmas tree and a sign saluting liberty. Their placement creates an “overall holiday setting” that celebrates more than one (or two) belief systems. Additionally, the menorah is a symbol of the season, having both religious and secular meaning.