County of Allegheny v. American Civil Liberties Union 1989

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County of Allegheny v. American Civil Liberties Union 1989

Petitioners: County of Allegheny, et al.

Respondents: American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), et al.

Petitioners' Claim: That government holiday displays with a Christian nativity scene and a Jewish menorah did not violate the First Amendment guarantee of separation of church and state.

Chief Lawyer for Petitioners: Peter Buscemi

Chief Lawyer for Respondents: Roslyn M. Litman

Justices for the Court: (Ruling against the Christian nativity scene) Harry A. Blackmun (writing for the Court), William J. Brennan, Jr., Thurgood Marshall, Sandra Day O'Connor, John Paul Stevens. (Ruling in favor of the Jewish menorah) Harry A. Blackmun (writing for the Court), Anthony M. Kennedy, Sandra Day O'Connor, William H. Rehnquist, Antonin Scalia, Byron R. White

Justices Dissenting: (Voting in favor of the Christian nativity scene) Anthony M. Kennedy, William H. Rehnquist, Antonin Scalia, Byron R. White. (Voting against the Jewish menorah) William J. Brennan, Jr., Thurgood Marshall, John Paul Stevens

Date of Decision: July 3, 1989

Decision: By different votes, the Court banned the Christian nativity scene but allowed the Jewish menorah.

Significance: The Court said that government may not sponsor holiday displays that support religion.

'Tis the season

Thanksgiving in November marks the beginning of a holiday season that leads to Christmas, Chanukah, New Year's Day, and other holidays. People of many religions celebrate the season with festive holiday displays.

In Allegheny County, Pennsylvania, the county courthouse celebrated the season by displaying a créche donated by a Roman Catholic organization called the Holy Name Society. A créche is a nativity scene that displays the events surrounding the birth of Jesus Christ. In 1986 the créche had figures of Jesus, Mary, and Joseph, plus shepherds, animals, and wise men. The créche also had a sign for the Holy Name Society (a Catholic group) and a message that said "Glory to God in the Highest."

One block from the courthouse was the City-County Building, which had government offices for both Allegheny County and the city of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. During the holiday season, Pittsburgh decorated the entrance to its side of the building with a 45-foot-tall Christmas tree. Beginning in 1982, Pittsburgh added an 18-foot menorah to the display. A menorah is a candleholder that is used to celebrate the Jewish holiday of Chanukah. In 1986 the display had a sign with the following message: "During this holiday season, the city of Pittsburgh salutes liberty. Let these festive lights remind us that we are the keepers of the flame of liberty and our legacy of freedom."

Celebrating holidays or establishing religion?

Not everyone approved of the holiday displays. On December 10, 1986, the Pittsburgh office of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) joined seven residents in filing a lawsuit. They wanted to stop Allegheny County from displaying the créche and Pittsburgh from displaying the menorah. The ACLU said the displays, because they were sponsored by government, violated the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment.

The First Amendment says, "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof." The first part of this amendment is called the Establishment Clause. It prevents the federal government from supporting religion or favoring one religion over others. State and local governments must obey the Establishment Clause under the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment.

The United States adopted the First Amendment to avoid the situation that existed in England before the American Revolution. England had an official religion called the Church of England. British citizens were forced to pay taxes to support the Church of England, to attend its services, and to say prayers approved by the government. The United States's founders did not want anybody to be forced to support an official religion.

In its lawsuit, the ACLU argued that the holiday displays by Allegheny County and Pittsburgh violated the Establishment Clause. The ACLU said the créche showed government support of Christianity and the menorah showed support of Judaism. The trial court ruled in favor of the governments. It said the displays did not support religion, but only celebrated the holiday season. The ACLU appealed to the Third Circuit Court of Appeals. That court reversed the decision and ruled in favor of the ACLU. It said that both displays supported religion, in violation of the Establishment Clause. Allegheny County and Pittsburgh appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court.

A mixed ruling

The Supreme Court reached a decision that confused some observers. It said the créche violated the Establishment Clause, but the menorah with the Christmas tree did not.

Writing for the Court, Justice Harry A. Blackmun explained that the Establishment Clause prevents governments from supporting religion or favoring one religion over others. Justice Blackmun reviewed a similar Supreme Court case called Lynch v. Donnelley. That case involved a créche that was part of a large holiday display in the city of Pawtucket, Rhode Island. In Lynch the Supreme Court ruled that the créche did not violate the Establishment Clause because it was part of a large display that was secular, which means not religious. The display involved in Lynch was secular because it also had Santa Claus, reindeer, a Christmas tree, carolers, and a large banner that said "Seasons Greetings."

Justice Blackmun used the result in Lynch to decide County of Allegheny. He said the créche displayed by Allegheny County in front of the county courthouse obviously supported Christianity. It had figures showing the events of the birth of Jesus Christ. The scene was not surrounded by any secular, or non-religious, figures. Finally, it had a sign for a Catholic organization and another sign that said "Glory to God in the Highest." Justice Blackmun said that on the whole, the créche showed support for Christianity, and so violated the Establishment Clause.

As for the menorah and the Christmas tree displayed by Pittsburgh, Justice Blackmun admitted that the menorah was a religious object for the Jewish holiday of Chanukah. He decided, however, that Chanukah is both a religious and a secular holiday. Some Jews who are not religious still celebrate Chanukah, just like some people who are not religious still celebrate Christmas. Blackmun said that together, the Christmas tree, the menorah, and the sign about liberty celebrated the secular, non-religious aspects of Christmas and Chanukah. They did not support Christianity or Judaism, and so did not violate the Establishment Clause.

A chorus of opinions

Many justices wrote their own opinions, both agreeing and disagreeing with the decision by the Court. Justice Sandra Day O'Connor agreed that the créche violated the Establishment Clause and the menorah did not. She disagreed, however, that the menorah next to the Christmas tree was not a religious symbol. Instead, Justice O'Connor said that side by side, the Christmas tree and the menorah supported the freedom of religion, which is the right to choose religious beliefs. They did not show government support for one religion over another.

Justice William J. Brennan, Jr. also wrote his own opinion. Justice Brennan believed that both the créche and the menorah violated the Establishment Clause. He said the créche obviously supported Christianity and the menorah obviously supported Judaism. Putting the menorah next to a Christmas tree did not take away from its religious message. In Brennan's opinion, the Establishment Clause prevents government support for any religion, and both displays violated the clause.


T he American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) is an organization that defends civil liberties. Civil liberties are the individual rights found in the Bill of Rights, which contains the first ten amendments to the U.S. Constitution. They include the freedom of speech, the freedom of religion, and the right to have a jury trial when accused of a crime.

The ACLU defends civil liberties in three ways. It educates people so they will know their civil liberties. It asks Congress to pass laws that protect civil liberties. When the ACLU thinks there has been a serious violation of somebody's civil liberties, it files a lawsuit to correct the violation.

Since the ACLU was founded in 1920, it has participated in many important and controversial cases, often taking unpopular stands. In 1930 it organized a team of lawyers to defend John T. Scopes, who faced criminal charges in Tennessee for teaching the theory of evolution. In 1954 it participated in the landmark case of Brown v. Board of Education, in which the U.S. Supreme Court outlawed segregation, the practice of separating racial groups in different public schools. In 1977 the ACLU defended the right of American Nazis to march peacefully in Skokie, Illinois.

When asked how it can defend a group like the Nazis, ACLU officials said the organization defends the right of people to express their views, not the views that they express.

Justice Anthony M. Kennedy had the opposite opinion. He did not think either display violated the Establishment Clause. Justice Kennedy said the Establishment Clause was designed to prevent the government from setting up an official religion, such as the Church of England. He said it was not designed to prevent the government from recognizing that religion plays an important role in the lives of Americans. Justice Kennedy pointed out that Congress begins every day with a prayer. The Supreme Court crier opens every session by saying "God save the United States and this honorable Court." U.S. money even has "In God We Trust" written on it. Kennedy believed the holiday displays simply recognized the role of religion in the holiday season. They did not force U.S. citizens to follow a specific religion.

Suggestions for further reading

Evans, J. Edward. Freedom of Religion. Minneapolis, MN: Lerner Publications Company, 1990.

Farish, Leah. The First Amendment: Freedom of Speech, Religion, and the Press. Hillside, NJ: Enslow Publishers, Inc., 1998.

Gay, Kathlyn. Church and State: Government and Religion in the United States. Brookfield, CT: Millbrook Press, 1992.

Hirst, Mike. Freedom of Belief. New York, NY: Franklin Watts, 1997.

Kleeberg, Irene Cumming. Separation of Church and State. New York: Franklin Watts, 1986.

Klinker, Philip A. The First Amendment. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Silver Burdett Press, 1991.

Sherrow, Victoria. Freedom of Worship. Brookfield, CT: Millbrook Press, 1997.

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County of Allegheny v. American Civil Liberties Union 1989

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