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

views updated


Each year the County of Allegheny set up a variety of exhibits to commemorate the holiday season. Inside the county courthouse, a crèche was displayed on the grand staircase. Outside the courthouse stood a Christmas tree and a menorah, the latter a symbol of Hanukkah. The outside display was accompanied by a sign describing it as part of the city's salute to liberty. A splintered Supreme Court ruled that the crèche violated the establishment clause, but the menorah did not.

Justice harry a. blackmun delivered the opinion of the Court with respect to the crèche. He argued that the crèche violated the second prong of the lemon test because it expressed a patently religious message, as indicated by an accompanying banner with the words "Gloria in Excelsis Deo!" ("Glory to God in the Highest!"). However, Blackmun argued that the menorah did not endorse religion because in context it was devoid of religious significance. The menorah and Christmas tree together merely symbolized the different facets of the "same winter-holiday season, which has attained a secular status in our society."

Justice sandra day o'connor rejected Blackmun's reasoning with respect to the menorah, although she concurred in the Court's judgment. Unlike Blackmun, O'Connor readily acknowledged the religious meaning of the menorah, but argued that its display was permissible because in context it "conveyed a message of pluralism and freedom of belief" rather than endorsement. Justices william j. brennan, john paul stevens, and thurgood marshall disagreed. They contended that both the Christmas tree and the menorah were religious symbols and that their display effected a dual endorsement of Christianity and Judaism.

Four Justices on the Court—william h. rehnquist, antonin scalia, byron r. white, and anthony m. kennedy—took issue with the Court's ruling on the crèche. Writing for this group, Justice Kennedy argued that the guiding principle in establishment-clause cases should be government neutrality toward religion—but neutrality properly understood. Given the pervasive influence of the "modern administrative state," said Kennedy, complete government nonrecognition of religion would send "a clear message of disapproval." Hence, some government recognition of religion may actually further the goal of neutrality. As applied to this case, for the government to recognize only the secular aspects of a holiday with both secular and religious components would signal not neutrality but "callous indifference" toward the religious beliefs of a great many celebrants. Such hostility is not required by the Constitution according to Kennedy. As long as holiday displays do not directly or indirectly coerce people in the area of religion and the displays do not tend toward the establishment of a state religion, they should be constitutional. Under this standard, the crèche, the Christmas tree, and the menorah were all permissible.

John G. West, Jr.

(see also: Establishment of Religion; Lynch v. Donnelly; Religious Liberty; Separation of Church and State.)

About this article

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

Updated About content Print Article