Lynch v. Donnelly

In Lynch v. Donnelly, the Supreme Court upheld the constitutionality of a crèche, or nativity scene, that the City of Pawtucket placed in a public park during the Christmas season. The crèche was part of a larger display that included, among other things, a Santa Claus house, reindeer pulling Santa’s sleigh, candy-striped poles, a Christmas tree, and a large banner that read “Season’s Greetings.” The Court began its analysis in Lynch by noting that, while the goal of the Establishment Clause is to prevent intrusion of the state on religion and vice versa, it is impossible to have absolute separation. The Court examined the history of Christmas in America, and noted that both the President and Congress have recognized Christmas as a national holiday. Applying its test developed in Lemon v. Kurtzman, the Court found that the principal purpose of the crèche was to depict the origins of a national holiday, which is a valid secular purpose. Further, the Court concluded that any potential endorsement or benefit to a particular religion by the placement of the crèche was incidental. The display of the crèche, according to the Court, was no more an advancement or endorsement of religion than the Congressional and Presidential recognition of the origins of the holiday. Finally, the Court found that placement of the crèche did not create excessive entanglement between government and religion because the city made no expenditures for its maintenance. Thus, the display was constitutional. In a concurring opinion, Justice O’Connor articulated an additional test for determining Establishment Clause issues known as the Endorsement Test. Under this test a court asks whether the government action at issue sends a message to non-adherents that they are outsiders and an accompanying message to adherents that they are insiders. This test has been interpreted by later cases as a way to apply the second prong of the Lemon test, which asks whether government action impermissibly advances religion.

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