Summary of Lynch v. Donnelly
Citation: 465 U.S. 668 (1984)
Relevant Facts: The City of Pawtucket, Rhode Island had for many years erected an annual holiday display in a park owned by a nonprofit group located in the heart of the city’s primary shopping district. The sponsored display included a variety of festive holiday decorations, including a crèche, Santa’s house, a Christmas tree, and a banner that read “Season’s Greetings." Daniel Donnelly and others objected to the display and the town’s sponsorship, claiming that the display was religious in nature and unconstitutionally endorsed religion by a government entity. Donnelly and others brought suit against the City and Mayor Dennis Lynch, seeking to have the display removed and enjoin the City from future religious displays. The Trial Court agreed that the display promoted religion and issued the injunction, affirmed by the Court of Appeals. Lynch and the City appealed.
Issue: Does a City violate the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment, made applicable to the States by the Fourteenth Amendment, by erecting a crèche alongside other holiday decorations?
Holding: No, the display did not violate the Establishment Clause as it had a legitimate secular purpose and is appropriate given the historic importance of religion in public life. Such displays, even where they contain some religious representations, are acceptable under the Establishment Clause so long as do not advance religion or foster excessive entanglement between government and religion.
Reasoning: Chief Justice Burger delivered the opinion for a narrow majority of the Court. He begin by acknowledging that the Court had previously determined that the Establishment Clause erected a wall of separation between church and state, but questioned whether the usefulness of the metaphor extending to practical consequences. As the majority explained, separation did not require “callous indifference" towards religion, but rather a two-fold approach whereby government accommodate all religions but was hostile to none- including the absence of religion. This understanding, Chief Justice Burger explained, was confirmed by the Framers themselves, many of whom sat in early Congresses that paid for and employed chaplains without reservation. Government does not run afoul of the Establishment Clause through merely acknowledging religion or recognizing the importance of religion in public life, so long as government remains sufficiently tolerant and eschews hostility, an understanding the majority thought confirmed by history. The majority acknowledged the complicated history of the Court’s Establishment Clause jurisprudence, explaining that the relevant inquiry is whether government actions establish support, or tend to do so, for any particular religion. Other tests for Establishment Clause cases, including looking for a secular purpose, the nature of entanglement between government and religion, and evaluating whether a particular act advances or inhibits religion are all useful while none- even taken together- are dispositive. The Court should look at displays in context, evaluating the totality of the circumstances rather than focusing on only the religious symbolism of any particular display, as such a focus would always lead to invalidating the conduct in question. In this case, the City had a valid secular purpose in promoting a holiday recognized by Congress and the Executive, had expended very little money, and there was little likelihood of entanglement. In sum, any perceived violations were de minimis. Concluding, the majority pointed out that it would be strange to exclude a symbol of a holiday long recognized and celebrated in this country as in others, in particular with the variety of public celebrations of Christmas and Christmas symbols elsewhere.
Concurrence: Justice O’Connor concurred, writing separately to clarify her view of the Establishment Clause and attempt to harmonize the majority opinion with the traditional tests for the Court’s Establishment Clause jurisprudence. In her view, while all factors may be relevant, the key here is whether the City intended to advance the Christian religion or had in fact done so. She concluded that they had not, evaluating this case by its own particular facts as required for careful considerations of Establishment Clause cases.
Dissent: Justice Brennan dissented, joined by Justices Marshall, Blackmun, and Stevens. Justice Brennan highlighted the narrow nature of the Court’s reasoning, having left open the question of religious displays on government property and whether religious displays are acceptable if not surrounded by other, secular symbols, but nonetheless disagreed with the ultimate conclusion. In his view, the constitutional problems of government support for a crèche and with it endorsement of the Biblical view of the birth of Christ were not cured by the inclusion of other displays. Rather, Justice Brennan concluded that the display was of particular value to those of the Christian faith and conveyed an improper message to non-believers- namely that they did not belong. Justice Brennan accused the majority of cherry-picking historical antidotes to bolster their case, arguing that the Framers would not have approved of federal celebration of Christmas. He concluded that while most are familiar with Christmas and the display is relatively harmless, even a small, innocuous step towards establishing religion is unacceptable under the First Amendment. Justice Blackmun dissented, joined by Justice Stevens. While he agreed with the main dissented opinion, he wrote separately to highlight that the majority had dismissed established precedent. He felt the use of a crèche in a public display was doubly-offensive, constraining believers to acknowledge symbolic meanings only while alienating non-believers.
Conclusion: The Court determined that the particular display in question here had a valid secular purpose and did not serve to advance religion or entangle government with religion. While the majority recognized the value of several established tests for Establishment Clause cases, they highlighted the specific facts and circumstances of a mixed seasonal display for a publicly recognized holiday and concluded that the First Amendment was no bar to such a government-sponsored display.