The ACLU challenged two public-sponsored holiday displays located on public property in downtown Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.
With respect to religious displays in public buildings, whether it indicates governmental endorsement of a particular religion in violation of the Establishment Clause is dependent on the context and use of the religious symbols.
The ACLU challenged two public-sponsored holiday displays located on public property in downtown Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. One was a creche, or Christian nativity scene, placed on the stairs of the Allegheny County Courthouse, which contained a banner with the words “Gloria in Excelsis Deo!” The second was a Chanukah menorah, placed outside the City-County Building, next to a Christmas tree and a sign saluting liberty. The ACLU argued that the displays were state endorsement of religion, in violation of the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment.
Did the public holiday displays violate the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment?
The creche violated the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment. However, the menorah was constitutionally legitimate.
There is no suggestion here that the government’s power to coerce has been used to further the interests of Christianity of Judaism in any way. No one was compelled to observe or participate in any religious ceremony or activity. Neither the city nor the county contributed significant amounts of tax money to serve the cause of one religious faith. The creche and the menorah are purely passive symbols of religious holidays. Passersby who disagree with the message conveyed by these displays are free to ignore them, whether the creche is surrounded by poinsettias or carolers. No matter the context, the conclusion remains the same.
The display of an object that retains a specifically religious meaning is incompatible with the separation of church and state demanded by our Constitution. Both the display of a creche at the county courthouse and the display of a menorah signal governmental endorsement of religion in violation of the Establishment Clause. While a Christmas tree is predominantly secular, the menorah is indisputably a religious symbol, used ritually in a celebration that has deep religious significance.
The creche inside the courthouse sat on the Grand Staircase, the “main” and “most beautiful part” of the building that is the seat of county government. No one could reasonably think that the display occupies this location without the support and approval of the government. Moreover, the creche itself was accompanied by a banner with a patently Christian message: “Glory to God for the birth of Jesus Christ.”
However, not all religious celebrations on government property violate the Establishment Clause. The display of the Chanukah menorah, given its physical proximity right beside a Christmas tree, simply recognizes that both Christmas and Chanukah are part of the same winter-holiday season, which has attained a secular status in our society.