Allegheny County v. Aclu Greater Pittsburgh Chapter

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492 U.S. 573 (1989), argued 22 Feb. 1989, decided 3 July 1989 by votes of 5 to 4 (to strike) and 6 to 3 (to uphold), Blackmun announced the judgment, O’Connor concurring in part, Brennan and Stevens concurring in part and dissenting in part, Kennedy concurring in judgment in part and dissenting in part. The Supreme Court's policy of the early 1980s favoring religious accommodation was manifest in Lynch v. Donnelly (1984). There, against a challenge brought by the American Civil Liberties Union, it upheld a publicly sponsored Christmas display by a 5-to-4 vote. Applying the three-part “test” enunciated in Lemon v. Kurtzman (1971), the Court held that in the context of a larger display—which included a Santa, reindeers, and talking wishing wells—a creche had a secular purpose, did not have a primary effect advancing or inhibiting religion, and did not excessively entangle church and state. In Allegheny, the Court refused to extend Lynch to approve a seasonal display that focused predominantly on religious symbols.

Justice Harry Blackmun announced the judgment of the Court in an opinion joined only by Justice Sandra Day O’Connor. He held that the context contemplated by Lynch was the display itself, not that of the general holiday season. Thus, a creche—unadorned by other, more secular objects—could not constitutionally be placed in the public display of a country courthouse. A menorah, however, could occupy a similar setting, so long as it was in a context—surrounded by secular symbols—that emphasized the diversity of the holiday. Brennan, Marshall, and Stevens would have struck both displays; Rehnquist, White, Scalia, and Kennedy would have up-held them.

Joseph F. Kobylka

Subjects: Law.

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