492 U.S. 573 (1989), 87-2050, County of Allegheny v. American Civil Liberties Union,

Docket Nº:No. 87-2050
Citation:492 U.S. 573, 109 S.Ct. 3086, 106 L.Ed.2d 472, 57 U.S.L.W. 5045
Party Name:County of Allegheny v. American Civil Liberties Union,
Case Date:July 03, 1989
Court:United States Supreme Court

Page 573

492 U.S. 573 (1989)

109 S.Ct. 3086, 106 L.Ed.2d 472, 57 U.S.L.W. 5045

County of Allegheny


American Civil Liberties Union,

No. 87-2050

United States Supreme Court

July 3, 1989

Greater Pittsburgh Chapter

Argued February 22, 1989




This litigation concerns the constitutionality of two recurring holiday displays located on public property in downtown Pittsburgh. The first, a creche depicting the Christian nativity scene, was placed on the Grand Staircase of the Allegheny County Courthouse, which is the "main," "most beautiful," and "most public" part of the courthouse. The creche was donated by the Holy Name Society, a Roman Catholic group, and bore a sign to that effect. Its manger had at its crest an [109 S.Ct. 3090] angel bearing a banner proclaiming "Gloria in Excelsis Deo," meaning "Glory to God in the Highest." The second of the holiday displays in question was an 18-foot Chanukah menorah or candelabrum, which was placed just outside the City-County Building next to the city's 45-foot decorated Christmas tree. At the foot of the tree was a sign bearing the mayor's name and containing text declaring the city's "salute to liberty." The menorah is owned by Chabad, a Jewish group, but is stored, erected, and removed each year by the city. Respondents, the Greater Pittsburgh Chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union and seven local residents, filed suit seeking permanently to enjoin the county from displaying the creche and the city from displaying the menorah on the ground that the displays violated the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment, made applicable to state governments by the Fourteenth Amendment. The District Court denied relief, relying on Lynch v. Donnelly, 465 U.S. 668, which held that a city's inclusion of a creche in its annual Christmas display in a private park did not violate the Establishment Clause. The Court of Appeals reversed, distinguishing Lynch v. Donnelly and holding that the creche and the menorah in the present case must be understood as an impermissible governmental endorsement of Christianity and Judaism under Lemon v. Kurtzman, 403 U.S. 602.

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Held: The judgment is affirmed in part and reversed in part, and the cases are remanded.

842 F.2d 655, affirmed in part, reversed in part, and remanded.

JUSTICE BLACKMUN delivered the opinion of the Court with respect to Parts III-A, IV, and V, concluding that:

1. Under Lemon v. Kurtzman, 403 U.S. at 612, a "practice which touches upon religion, if it is to be permissible under the Establishment Clause," must not, inter alia, "advance [or] inhibit religion in its principal or primary effect." Although, in refining the definition of governmental action that unconstitutionally "advances" religion, the Court's subsequent decisions have variously spoken in terms of "endorsement," "favoritism," "preference," or "promotion," the essential principle remains the same: the Clause, at the very least, prohibits government from appearing to take a position on questions of religious belief or from "making adherence to a religion relevant in any way to a person's standing in the political community." Lynch v. Donnelly, 465 U.S. at 687 (O'CONNOR, J., concurring). Pp. 589-594.

2. When viewed in its overall context, the creche display violates the Establishment Clause. The creche angel's words endorse a patently Christian message: Glory to God for the birth of Jesus Christ. Moreover, in contrast to Lynch, nothing in the creche's setting detracts from that message. Although the government may acknowledge Christmas as a cultural phenomenon, it may not observe it as a Christian holy day by suggesting that people praise God for the birth of Jesus. Pp. 598-602.

3. JUSTICE KENNEDY's reasons for permitting the creche on the Grand Staircase and his condemnation of the Court's reasons for deciding otherwise are unpersuasive. Pp. 602-613.

(a) History cannot legitimate practices like the creche display that demonstrate the government's allegiance to a particular sect or creed. Pp. 602-605.

(b) The question whether a particular practice would constitute governmental proselytization is much the same as the endorsement inquiry, except to the extent the proselytization test requires an "obvious" allegiance between the government and the favored sect. This Court's decisions, however, impose no such burden on demonstrating that the government has favored a particular sect or creed, but, to the contrary, have required strict scrutiny of practices suggesting a denominational preference. E.g., Larson v. Valente, 456 U.S. 228, 246. Pp. 605-609.

(c) The Constitution mandates that the government remain secular, rather than affiliating itself with religious beliefs or institutions, precisely in order to avoid discriminating against citizens on the basis of their religious faiths. Thus, the claim that prohibiting government from celebrating Christmas as a religious holiday discriminates against Christians

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in favor of nonadherents must fail, since it contradicts the fundamental premise of the Establishment Clause itself. In contrast, confining the government's own Christmas celebration to the holiday's secular aspects does not favor the religious beliefs of non-Christians over those of Christians, but simply permits the government to acknowledge the holiday without expressing an impermissible allegiance to Christian beliefs. Pp. 610-613.

JUSTICE BLACKMUN, joined by JUSTICE STEVENS, concluded in Part III-B that the concurring and dissenting opinions in Lynch v. Donnelly set forth the proper analytical framework for determining whether the government's display of objects having religious significance improperly advances religion. 465 U.S. at 687-694 (O'CONNOR, J., concurring); id. at 694-726 (BRENNAN, J., dissenting). Pp. 594-597.

JUSTICE BLACKMUN concluded in Part VI that the menorah display does not have the prohibited effect of endorsing religion, given its "particular physical setting." Its combined display with a Christmas tree and a sign saluting liberty does not impermissibly endorse both the Christian and Jewish faiths, but simply recognizes that both Christmas and Chanukah are part of the same winter holiday season, which has attained a secular status in our society. The widely accepted view of the Christmas tree as the preeminent secular symbol of the Christmas season emphasizes this point. The tree, moreover, by virtue of its size and central position in the display, is clearly the predominant element, and the placement of the menorah beside it is readily understood as simply a recognition that Christmas is not the only traditional way of celebrating the season. The absence of a more secular alternative to the menorah negates the inference of endorsement. Similarly, the presence of the mayor's sign confirms that, in the particular context, the government's association with a religious symbol does not represent sponsorship of religious beliefs, but simply a recognition of cultural diversity. Given all these considerations, it is not sufficiently likely that a reasonable observer would view the combined display as an endorsement or disapproval of his individual religious choices. Pp. 613-621.

JUSTICE O'CONNOR also concluded that the city's display of a menorah, together with a Christmas tree and a sign saluting liberty, does not violate the Establishment Clause. The Christmas tree, whatever its origins, is widely viewed today as a secular symbol of the Christmas holiday. Although there may be certain secular aspects to Chanukah, it is primarily a religious holiday, and the menorah its central religious symbol and ritual object. By including the menorah with the tree, however, and with the sign saluting liberty, the city conveyed a message of pluralism and freedom of belief during the holiday season, which, in this particular physical setting, could not be interpreted by a reasonable

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observer as an endorsement of Judaism or Christianity or disapproval of alternative beliefs. Pp. 632-637.

JUSTICE KENNEDY, joined by THE CHIEF JUSTICE, JUSTICE WHITE, and JUSTICE SCALIA, concluded that both the menorah display and the creche display are permissible under the Establishment Clause. Pp. 655-667.

(a) The test set forth in Lemon v. Kurtzman, 403 U.S. 602, 612 -- which prohibits the "principal or primary effect" of a challenged governmental practice from either advancing or inhibiting religion -- when applied with the proper sensitivity to our traditions [109 S.Ct. 3092] and case law, supports the conclusion that both the creche and the menorah are permissible displays in the context of the holiday season. The requirement of neutrality inherent in the Lemon formulation does not require a relentless extirpation of all contact between government and religion. Government policies of accommodation, acknowledgment, and support for religion are an accepted part of our political and cultural heritage, and the Establishment Clause permits government some latitude in recognizing the central role of religion in society. Any approach less sensitive to our heritage would border on latent hostility to religion, as it would require government in all its multifaceted roles to acknowledge only the secular, to the exclusion, and so to the detriment, of the religious. Thus, this Court's decisions disclose two principles limiting the government's ability to recognize and accommodate religion: it may not coerce anyone to support or participate in any religion or its exercise; and it may not, in the guise of avoiding hostility or callous indifference, give direct benefits to a religion in such a degree that it, in fact, establishes a state religion or tends to do so. In other words, the government may not place its weight behind an obvious effort to proselytize on behalf of a particular religion. On the other...

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