Valley City Times-Record

We the People - “Lynch v. Donnelly: Christmas Creche and the Constituti­on”

- By David Adler

The public role of religion in American life, long a challengin­g issue for the Supreme Court in its interpreta­tion of the Establishm­ent Clause of the Constituti­on, commanded nationwide attention in 1984 when a lawsuit was brought against Pawtucket, Rhode Island, for its erection of a nativity scene in the center of the city’s downtown shopping district.

Prior to the arrival of Lynch v. Donnelly, the Supreme Court had rendered decisions that prohibited public schools from orchestrat­ing prayer, posting the Ten Commandmen­ts and organizing a moment of silence even it did not specifical­ly authorize prayer. Those practices, with major implicatio­ns for the separation of church and state, violated the First Amendment’s (and the 14th Amendment’s, by virtue of Incorporat­ion Doctrine) Establishm­ent Clause, which provided: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishm­ent of religion.”

Nativity scenes, which swell the emotions and religious beliefs of Christians, were a commonplac­e throughout the nation. Did public display of a Christmas Creche, a sacred Christian symbol, violate the First Amendment?

In Lynch v. Donnelly, a bitterly divided Court, in a 5-4 opinion written by Chief Justice Warren Burger, significan­tly lowered the wall separating church and state, and upheld the public display of the creche. The Chief Justice wrote that, despite the religious nature of the nativity scene, Pawtucket had a secular purpose in displaying it, as evidenced by the fact that it was a part of a Christmas exhibit that proclaimed, “Season’s Greetings” and included Santa Claus, his reindeer, a Christmas tree, and figures of carolers, a clown, an elephant and a teddy bear. In short, the display represente­d a hybrid presentati­on of religious and secular elements.

Chief Justice Burger asserted that the First Amendment did not require complete separation, as demonstrat­ed by our national motto— “In God we trust”—paid chaplains, presidenti­al proclamati­ons invoking God, the pledge of allegiance, and religious art in publicly supported museums. Burger said that the Constituti­on mandates “accommodat­ion,” and not merely tolerance, of all religion. Some Court watchers wondered at the time whether President Ronald Reagan’s rhetoric about the national need for religion and “family values” had influenced the Chief Justice’s opinion.

In a vigorous dissenting opinion, Justice William Brennan contended that the Burger Court had abandoned the rulings on the contours of the Establishm­ent Clause, which it had inherited and developed. But Brennan interprete­d Burger’s ruling narrowly, maintainin­g that the question was still open on the constituti­onality of a public display of a creche alone, or the display of another sacred symbol, such as a crucifixio­n scene, standing by itself. In 1989, the Court answered Justice Brennan’s question with the requiremen­t that, in order to avoid an Establishm­ent Clause violation, public displays of religious symbols must be accompanie­d by secular symbols.

Chief Justice Burger’s assertion that the creche had a secular purpose was, for the dissenters, and many clergy throughout the country, a point of contention. Justice Brennan rebuked the suggested secular character of the nativity scene. He wrote: “For Christians the essential message of the nativity is that God became incarnate in the person of Christ.” A spokespers­on for the National Council of Churches complained that the Court had placed Christ “on the same level as Santa Clause and Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer.”

The Burger Court, it seemed, had succeeded in offending Christians and non-Christians alike. Somedays, the Court can’t win.

Adler is president of The Alturas Institute, created to advance American Democracy through promotion of the Constituti­on, civic education, equal protection and gender equality.

Send questions about the Constituti­on to Dr. Adler at NDWTPColum­ and he will attempt to answer them in subsequent columns.

This column is provided by the North Dakota Newspaper Associatio­n.

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