Lynch v. Donnelly: Supreme Court Case, Arguments, Impact

The constitutional legality of Christmas decorations

A nativity scene in front of a Christmas tree.

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Lynch v. Donnelly (1984) asked the Supreme Court to determine whether a city-owned, publicly displayed nativity scene violated the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment, which states that "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion or prohibiting the free exercise thereof." The court ruled that the nativity scene did not pose any threat to the separation of church and state.

Key Takeaways

  • Lynch v. Donnelly asked the Supreme Court to decide whether a town government could own and display Christmas decorations.
  • The case hinged on the use of a large nativity scene or "creche" in a public park.
  • The majority found that the nativity scene did not violate the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment because the city did not purposefully try to advance a specific religion, and that religion had no "discernible benefit" from the display.

Facts of the Case

In 1983, the city of Pawtucket, Rhode Island put up its annual Christmas decorations. In a prominent park owned by a non-profit, the town set up a display with a Santa Claus house, a sleigh and reindeer, carolers, a Christmas tree, and a "seasons greetings" banner. The display included a "creche," also called a nativity scene, which had been annually making appearances for over 40 years.

Pawtucket residents and the Rhode Island affiliate of the American Civil Liberties Union sued the city. They alleged that the decorations violated the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment, incorporated to the states by the Fourteenth Amendment.

The district court found in favor of the residents, agreeing that the decorations were an endorsement of religion. The First Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed the decision, though the bench was split. The U.S. Supreme Court granted certiorari.

Constitutional Issues

Did the city violate the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment when it constructed Christmas decorations and a nativity scene?

Arguments

Attorneys on behalf of the residents and ACLU argued that the nativity scene violated the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment. The nativity scene aimed to promote a specific religion. According to the attorneys, the display and the political divisiveness it caused suggested an excessive entanglement between the town government and religion.

Attorneys on behalf of Pawtucket argued the opposite of the residents bringing the lawsuit. The purpose of the nativity scene was to celebrate the holiday and attract people downtown to boost Christmas sales. As such, the town did not violate the Establishment Clause by setting up a nativity scene and there was no excessive entanglement between the town government and religion.

Majority Opinion

In a 5-4 decision, delivered by Justice Warren E. Burger, the majority found that the city had not violated the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment.

The purpose of the establishment clause, as shown in Lemon v. Kurtzman, was "to prevent, as far as possible, the intrusion of either [the church or the state] into the precincts of the other."

However, the Court recognized that there would always be a relationship between the two. According to the majority, religious invocations and references go as far back as 1789 when Congress began employing congressional chaplains to say daily prayers.

The Court chose to focus solely on the constitutionality of the nativity scene in adjudicating the case.

The Court asked three questions to help it decide whether Pawtucket had violated the Establishment Clause.

  1. Did the challenged law or conduct have a secular purpose?
  2. Was advancing religion its primary goal?
  3. Did the conduct create an "excessive entanglement" between the town government and a specific religion?

According to the majority, the nativity scene had "legitimate secular purposes." The scene was a historical reference amidst a larger Christmas display in recognition of the holiday season. In constructing the nativity scene, the city did not purposefully try to advance a specific religion and that religion had no "discernible benefit" from the display. Any minimal advancement of religion could not be considered cause for a violation of the Establishment Clause.

Justice Burger wrote:

"To forbid the use of this one passive symbol—the creche—at the very time people are taking note of the season with Christmas hymns and carols in public schools and other public places, and while the Congress and legislatures open sessions with prayers by paid chaplains, would be a stilted overreaction contrary to our history and to our holdings."

Dissenting Opinion

Justices William J. Brennan, John Marshall, Harry Blackmun, and John Paul Stevens dissented.

According to the dissenting justices, the Court appropriately used the Lemon v. Kurtzman test. However, it did not properly apply it. The majority was too reluctant to thoroughly apply the standards to a "familiar and agreeable" holiday like Christmas.

The Pawtucket display needed to be nondenominational and not promote religion in order to be constitutional.

Justice Brennan wrote:

"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."

Impact

In Lynch v. Donnelly, the majority accommodated religion in a way that it had not in past rulings. Instead of strictly applying the Lemon v. Kurtzman test, the court asked whether the nativity scene posed a real threat to the establishment of a state-recognized religion. Five years later, in 1989, the court ruled differently in Allegheny v. ACLU. A nativity scene, unaccompanied by other Christmas decorations in a public building violated the Establishment Clause.

Sources

  • Lynch v. Donnelly, 465 U.S. 668 (1984)