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Background Information

In 1994, the ACLU brought a suit against the City of Jersey City to stop it from erecting a holiday display which included a menorah, a crèche, a holiday tree, and a sign stating that the display was part of the broader celebration of diversity. The display of the crèche and menorah, both owned by the city, has gone on for thirty years and is done on property also owned by the city.

When the ACLU originally raised its concerns about the crèche and menorah, the city added the sign which stated:

Through this display and others throughout the year, the City of Jersey City is pleased to celebrate the diverse cultural and ethnic heritages of its peoples.

On November 28, 1995, a District Court agreed with the ACLU and ruled against the city, finding that the lack of secular symbols indicated that the city was only providing a religious display. The city then proceeded to add a four-foot tall plastic figure of Santa Claus, a four-foot tall plastic figure of Frosty the Snowman, and a red wooden sled, even though they had been enjoined from erecting any display at all. Both sides appealed - the ACLU appealed the decision that the modified display was no constitutional and the city appealed the decision that there was anything wrong with the original display in the first place.

Court Decision

On February 16, 1999, the Third Circuit Court of Appeals essentially ruled against both the plaintiffs and the defendants. According the Court, the plaintiffs were wrong about the original display, finding that it was indeed unconstitutional; the Court also ruled against the ACLU when it came to the new display, finding that it was constitutional.

In this decision, the Court relied heavily upon the earlier Supreme Court ruling in County of Allegheny v. ACLU, arguing that the Jersey City display and the Allegheny County display were similar enough that they should be treated alike.

Reasonably viewed, none of these displays conveyed a message of government endorsement of Christianity, Judaism, or of religion in general.

The Court was quite strong, however, in its rejection of the city's argument that the original crèche, prominently displayed, could be construed as sufficiently secular:

A crèche represents the Christian belief that Jesus was born to the Virgin Mary to lead humankind on a path toward salvation and redemption. Yet Jersey City would have us believe that the symbol of the crèche has achieved such a level of secular status that it is religiously benign. We are not so persuaded. The mere fact that a religious symbol is pervasively displayed during the holiday season does not diminish its religious significance. A crèche unambiguously represents a belief that is not universally shared by the citizens of this country. In fact, many citizens believe that Jesus may only be understood as a Hebrew prophet. For some devout observers of their respective faiths, it is heresy to ascribe a divine character or purpose to Jesus' life or death. ...Jersey City's use of public funds to erect and maintain its display increased the "risk of making religion relevant ...to status in [Jersey City's] political community."

The context of the menorah and tree did not change anything - the menorah is a religious symbol, heightening the religious significance of the crèche, and the tree was did little as a balance against the other two. Thus, "the [original] display cannot be viewed as anything but a constitutionally impermissible dual endorsement of Christianity and Judaism.

Significance

This decision provides further support to those who argue that the government should be allowed to include religious symbols in holiday displays without violating the separation of church and state. This decision does do that, but only so long as those symbols are sufficiently balanced by a non-religious context.

This decision also serves to undermine the argument offered by many accomodationists that it is permissible for the government to aid religion so long as it does so non-denominationally - that is, so long as the aid flows to many religions. In his decision, Judge Lewis wrote:

It remains clear that government celebration of one particular religion, or even more than one religion, can constitute government endorsement of religion that violates the Establishment Clause... government celebration of more than one religion cannot magically transform a government endorsement of religion into a secular "celebration of diversity and pluralism."

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