The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) (plaintiff) challenged two state-sponsored holiday displays in Allegheny County (County) (defendant) as unconstitutional in federal district court. The first is a crèche placed on the Grand Staircase of the Allegheny County Courthouse. The second is a Chanukah menorah placed just outside the City-County Building, next to a Christmas tree and a sign saluting liberty. The district court held for the County but the court of appeals reversed on the ground that the holiday displays violated the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment. The United States Supreme Court granted certiorari.
Whether the state may publicly display religious depictions that promote religion without violating the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment.
The display involving a crèche is ultimately held to violate the Establishment Clause, while the menorah display is upheld as constitutional in light of the particular setting in which it is placed. The County’s crèche display contains no other object or figures to detract from its religious message. Without more, this display is unconstitutional as an improper state endorsement of the particular religion represented by the crèche. In contrast, the menorah display is surrounded by a Christmas tree and a sign saluting liberty. Thus, while the menorah is an inherently religious symbol, the combined effect of placing it in a display with other holiday objects is to downplay its religious message. The overall setting of the menorah makes it a permissible state-sponsored display depicting images of the winter holiday season. Thus, the crèche display violates the Establishment Clause, while the menorah display does not. The decision of the court of appeals is affirmed in part and reversed in part.
The issue at hand is whether a challenged governmental practice either has the purpose or effect of endorsing religion. The prohibition of endorsement precludes government from conveying or attempting to convey a message that religion or a particular religious belief is favored or preferred. Ultimately, in evaluating the effect of government conduct under the Establishment Clause, the judiciary must ascertain whether “the challenged governmental action is sufficiently likely to be perceived by adherents of the controlling denominations as an endorsement, and by the non-adherents as a disapproval, of their individual religious choices.” Grand Rapids Sch. Dist. v. Ball, 473 U.S. 373 (1985).