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Lynch v. Donnelly

    Citation. 465 U.S. 668, 104 S. Ct. 1355, 79 L. Ed. 2d 604, 1984 U.S. 37.

    Brief Fact Summary. The Plaintiff, Daniel Donnelly (Plaintiff), objects to a crèche included in a Christmas display as violating the Establishment Clause of the United States Constitution (Constitution).

    Synopsis of Rule of Law. Displays which celebrate the Christmas season without favoring one religion over another are generally upheld. The government cannot permit the type of display, which would endorse one religion over another because Establishment Clause of the Constitution would be violated.


    Facts. A crèche included in a Christmas display, located in a park, owned by a nonprofit organization, is alleged to violate the Establishment Clause, due to a government entity’s involvement with religion. The display included such objects as a Santa Claus house, a Christmas tree, a banner reading “Seasons Greetings,” and a crèche. The crèche had been included in the display for over 40 years. The Plaintiff objected to the display and took action against the Defendant, Dennis Lynch (Defendant), the Mayor of the city. In ruling on the case, the Supreme Court of the United States (Supreme Court) acknowledges that the line-drawing test set forth in Lemon is useful when inquiring into whether the challenged law or conduct has a secular purpose, whether its principal or primary effect is to advance or inhibit religion and whether it creates an excessive entanglement of government with religion. The Supreme Court also acknowledges while the Lemon test is useful, there analysis will not be confined to a single test. The Supreme Court ruled that the inclusion of the crèche in the Christmas display and the benefit caused by the inclusion of the crèche to one religion over another is incidental, indirect and remote. Moreover, the display of the crèche is not an advancement or endorsement of religion. It is only a government recognition of Christmas itself.

    Issue. Whether the inclusion of a crèche in a Christmas display, erected by the city, in a park owned by a nonprofit violates the Establishment Clause of the Constitution?

    Held. Reversed. The inclusion of a crèche in a Christmas display is not am advancement or endorsement of religion any more than the Government recognition of Christmas itself or the inclusion of religious paintings in governmentally sponsored museums.

    Dissent. The inclusion of a distinctively religious symbol like the crèche demonstrates a sectarian purpose other than to gender the good will associated with the Christmas season. The primary effect of the inclusion of the crèche is to place a governmental approval on a religious belief exemplified by the crèche. The city is not merely using the crèche as a tradition holiday symbol, thereby purging the crèche of its religious content and conferring only an incidental and direct benefit upon religion.

    Concurrence. The central issue in this case is whether the city has endorsed Christianity by its display of the crèche. To answer that question the Supreme Court needs to look at what the city intended to communicate by the inclusion of the crèche and what message was actually conveyed. The purpose and effect prongs of the Lemon test represent these two aspects of the meanings of the City’s actions.

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    Discussion. The Establishment Clause of the First Amendment of the Constitution prohibits the government from endorsing one religion over another. The Supreme Court often relies on the Lemon test to inquire into whether the challenged law or conduct has a secular purpose, whether its principal or primary effect is to advance or inhibit religion and whether it creates an excessive entanglement of government with religion.

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