Respondents, Pawtucket residents and individual members of the Rhode Island affiliate of the American Civil Liberties Union, challenged the City’s inclusion of the Nativity scene in the annual display.
The Constitution does not require complete separation of church and state. It affirmatively mandates accommodation, not merely tolerance, of all religions, and forbids hostility to any.
Every year, in cooperation with the downtown retail merchants’ association, the City of Pawtucket, Rhode Island, 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 may of towns and cities across the Nation. The Pawtucket display comprises many of the figures and decorations traditionally associated with Christmas. The Nativity scene in the display consists of traditional figures including the Infant Jesus. The Nativity scene has been included in the display for more than 40 years and is not valued at $200.
Does the Establishment Clause prohibit a municipality from including a Nativity scene in its annual Christmas display?
No, the City has a secular purpose for including the Nativity scene, the City has not impermissibly advanced religion, and including the Nativity scene does not create excessive entanglement between religion and government. To forbid the use of this one passive symbol at the very time people are taking note of the season with Christmas hymns and carols in public schools and public places, and while the Congress open sessions with prayers by paid chaplains would be an overreaction contrary to our history and holdings.
Our precedents compel the holding that Pawtucket’s inclusion of a life-sized display depicting the biblical description of the birth of Christ as part of its annual Christmas celebration is unconstitutional. Nothing in the history of such practices or the setting in which the City’s Nativity scene is presented obscures of diminishes the plain fact that Pawtucket’s action amounts to an impermissible governmental endorsement of a particular faith. All of Pawtucket’s valid secular objectives can be readily accomplished by other means. Also, the City’s inclusion of a Nativity scene as part of its annual Christmas display does pose a significant threat of fostering excessive entanglement.
When viewed in the proper context of the Christmas Holiday season, it is apparent that there is insufficient evidence to establish that the inclusion of the Nativity scene is a purposeful or surreptitious effort to express some kind of subtle governmental advocacy of a particular religious message. The City has principally has taken note of a significant historical religious event long celebrated in the Western World. The Nativity scene in the display depicts the historical origins of this traditional event long recognized as a National Holiday. Also, the display is sponsored by the City to celebrate the Holiday and to depict the origins of that Holiday. These are legitimate secular purposes. To conclude that the primary effect of including the Nativity scene is to advance religion in violation of the Establishment Clause would require that the Court view it as more beneficial to and more an endorsement of religion. However, here, whatever benefit to one faith or religion is indirect, remote and incidental; display of the scene is no more an advancement or endorsement of religion than the congressional recognition of the origins of the Holiday itself as Christ’s Mass, or the exhibition of literally hundreds of religious paintings in governmentally supported museums.