County of Allegheny v. American Civil Liberties Union
County of Allegheny v. ACLU involved a constitutional challenge to two different holiday displays. The first was a crèche located in the main staircase of a county court building with a sign above the manger reading “Gloria in Excelsis Deo,” Latin for “Glory to God in the Highest.” The second display was located outside a county building and included an 18-foot Chanukah menorah next to a 45-foot Christmas tree, with a sign declaring the city’s “salute to liberty.” The Court held that the crèche placed in the courthouse violated the Establishment Clause because it appeared to officially endorse Christianity, but the display containing the menorah and Christmas tree, together with the sign proclaiming a salute to liberty, did not violate the constitution. Regarding the crèche, the Court found that the inscription above the manger endorsed a patently Christian message because it proclaimed glory to God for the birth of Jesus Christ, and there was nothing surrounding the crèche that detracted from its purely religious message. While the Court noted in Lynch v. Donnelly that the government may acknowledge Christmas as a cultural phenomenon, the Court concluded in this case that the government may not suggest that people praise God for the birth of Jesus. Thus the crèche constituted government endorsement of religion in violation of the First Amendment. In contrast, the Court held that the menorah and the Christmas tree with the sign saluting liberty conveyed a message of pluralism and freedom of belief during the holiday season, which could not be reasonably interpreted as an endorsement of any religion in particular. Therefore, the tree and menorah did not violate the Establishment Clause.
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