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Lynch v. Donnelly (1983)

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Background Information

The city of Pawtucket, Rhode Island annually displayed Christmas symbols on the property of local non-profit organization: a nativity scene surrounding by symbols of Christmas, including a wishing-well, reindeer, a Christmas Tree, Santa Claus, candy-striped poles, and more. This display had been a tradition in the town for about forty years and was owned and stored by the city government, even though it was actually erected on private property.

A group of local citizens filed suit, claiming that a display owned and operated by the government and including religious scenes violated the Establishment Clause because it clearly sponsored religion.

Court Decision

With the majority opinion written by Chief Justice Burger, the Court ruled 5-4 that it would be constitutional for the city of Pawtucket to continue displaying a nativity scene with its Christmas display.

Chief Justice Burger's opinion for the Court in Lynch began by expanding on the religious heritage theme exemplified in the earlier decision of Marsh v. Chambers, in which prayers before a legislative session were upheld. Evidence that "[w]e are a religious people whose institutions presuppose a Supreme Being" was supplied by reference to the national motto "In God We Trust," the affirmation "one nation under God" in the pledge of allegiance, and the recognition of both Thanksgiving and Christmas as national holidays.

In this context, the Court decided that the city's inclusion of the creche in its Christmas display had a legitimate secular purpose in recognizing "the historical origins of this traditional event long [celebrated] as a National Holiday," and that its primary effect was not to advance religion:

The display is sponsored by the city to celebrate the Holiday and to depict the origins of that Holiday. These are legitimate secular purposes. The District Court's inference, drawn from the religious nature of the creche, that the city has no secular purpose was, on this record, clearly erroneous.

The benefit to religion was called "indirect, remote, and incidental," and in any event no greater than the benefit resulting from other actions that had been found to be permissible, for example the provision of transportation and textbooks to parochial school students, various assistance to church-supported colleges, Sunday closing laws, and legislative prayers. Key to this decision and the many following lower court decisions on religious displays during religious holidays is the existence of a secular purpose. So long as one can be reasonably found, the display will be found constitutional.

In her concurring opinion, Justice O'Connor offered a "clarification" of how the Establishment Clause should be read:

The Establishment Clause prohibits government from making adherence to a religion relevant in any way to a person's standing in the political community. Government can run afoul of that prohibition in two principal ways. One is excessive entanglement with religious institutions ...The second and more direct infringement is government endorsement or disapproval of religion. Endorsement sends a message to nonadherents that they are outsiders, not full members of the political community, and an accompanying message to adherents that they are insiders, favored members of the political community.

This is sometimes referred to as the "Endorsement Test." A law which fails this test is found to be unconstitutional because it "endorses" religion or religious beliefs in such a way that it tells those who agree that they are favored insiders and those who disagree that they are disfavored outsiders. The other side of the coin would be the "disapproval" of religion or religious beliefs in such a way that those who agree with the beliefs are told that they are disfavored outsiders while those who disagree with the beliefs are told that they are favored insiders.

Joined by Justices Stevens, Marshall and Blackmun, Justice Brennan wrote a dissent in which he argued that a life-sized display depicting the biblical description of the birth of Christ, the central figure of Christianity, is plainly unconstitutional. Brennan felt that the lessons and principles of the Court's precedents were clear, but ignored and/or violated in this instance because the other Justices found Christmas to be "agreeable" and did not want to disturb them. Nevertheless:

Pawtucket's maintenance and display at public expense of a symbol as distinctively sectarian as a creche simply cannot be squared with our prior cases. And it is plainly contrary to the purposes and values of the Establishment Clause to pretend, as the Court does, that the otherwise secular setting of Pawtucket's nativity scene dilutes in some fashion the creche's singular religiosity, or that the city's annual display reflects nothing more than an "acknowledgment" of our shared national heritage. Neither the character of the Christmas holiday itself, nor our heritage of religious expression supports this result. Indeed, our remarkable and precious religious diversity as a Nation, which the Establishment Clause seeks to protect, runs directly counter to today's decision.

Brennan also argued very strongly that the use of such religious displays were clear violations of the tests used by the Court to determine if something violates the separation of church and state:

To be found constitutional, Pawtucket's seasonal celebration must at least be nondenominational and not serve to promote religion. The inclusion of a distinctively religious element like the creche, however, demonstrates that a narrower sectarian purpose lay behind the decision to include a nativity scene. ...The "primary effect" of including a nativity scene in the city's display is, as the District Court found, to place the government's imprimatur of approval on the particular religious beliefs exemplified by the creche. Those who believe in the message of the nativity receive the unique and exclusive benefit of public recognition and approval of their views. For many, the city's decision to include the creche as part of its extensive and costly efforts to celebrate Christmas can only mean that the prestige of the government has been conferred on the beliefs associated with the creche

Brennan also rejected the Court's new "plastic reindeer rule" (according to which a religious display is made acceptable so long as there are enough secular symbols to go along with it and create balance) as not only nonsense, but in fact offensive nonsense:

...it blinks reality to claim, as the Court does, that by including such a distinctively religious object as the creche in its Christmas display, Pawtucket has done no more than make use of a "traditional" symbol of the holiday, and has thereby purged the creche of its religious content and conferred only an "incidental and indirect" benefit on religion. ...I refuse to accept the notion implicit in today's decision that non-Christians would find that the religious content of the creche is eliminated by the fact that it appears as part of the city's otherwise secular celebration of the Christmas holiday. The nativity scene is clearly distinct in its purpose and effect from the rest of the Hodgson Park display for the simple reason that it is the only one rooted in a biblical account of Christ's birth.

Significance

In this decision, the Court specifically refused to adopt an absolutist stance regarding the separation of church and state. According to Chief Justice Burger, the Establishment Clause does not demand a "strict separation of church and state," but instead demands accommodation between the two.

Each Establishment Clause case is to be independently checked to determine whether the intent is secular or religious. Religion in general may be advanced by the government in some cases so long as there is no administrative entanglement with religion. Key in this case was the fact that the religious display was surrounded by secular symbols, creating what has become known as the "plastic reindeer rule."

In addition, Justice O'Connor gave a new explanation to the Lemon test, which became known as the "endorsement" test:

The Establishment Clause prohibits government from making adherence to a religion relevant in any way to a person's standing in the political community. Government can run afoul of that prohibition in two principal ways. One is excessive entanglement with religious institutions, which may interfere with the independence of the institutions, give the institutions access to government or governmental powers not fully shared by nonadherents of the religion, and foster the creation of political constituencies defined along religious lines. The second and more direct infringement is government endorsement or disapproval of religion. Endorsement sends a message to nonadherents that they are outsiders, not full members of the political community, and an accompanying message to adherents that they are insiders, favored members of the political community. Disapproval sends the opposite message.

The purpose prong of the Lemon test asks whether government's actual purpose is to endorse or disapprove of religion. The effect prong asks whether, irrespective of government's actual purpose, the practice under review in fact conveys a message of endorsement or disapproval. An affirmative answer to either question should render the challenged practice invalid.

One interesting facet of this case was the fact that Rex E. Lee, Ronald Reagan's Solicitor General, petitioned to be allowed not only to submit an amicus curiae brief but also to participate in the oral arguments. This only happens when a case involves a controversy which is of major concern to the government - but how can that be true with a case involving a local community displaying a nativity scene? The most likely explanation is that it related to the effort to reintroduce government sponsored and government led prayers in public schools, a controversy which finds the same passion and energy among supporters.

Reaction to this decision from many religious groups was quite negative. One illustrative example comes from an essay Norman Redlich, Dean of the New York University School of Law and chairman of the American Jewish Congress and published in the New York Times:

For the first time, the Supreme Court has upheld direct government approval and financial support of an avowedly religious symbol relating to the beliefs of only one faith. ...this is not a country in which Jews, or anyone else, should be asked to accommodate to a dominant religion.

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