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Lynch v. Donnelly


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465 U.S. 668 (1984), argued 4 Oct. 1983, decided 5 Mar. 1984 by vote of 5 to 4; Burger for the Court; O’Connor concurring; Blackmun, Brennan, Marshall, and Stevens in dissent. The city of Pawtucket, Rhode Island, owned and annually erected a Christmas display in its downtown shopping district. The display included, among other things, a Santa's house, a Christmas tree, cutout animal figures, colored lights, and a life-sized nativity scene. The plaintiffs, residents of Pawtucket, alleged that the presence of the nativity scene, or “crèche,” in the display demonstrated official support for Christianity, violating the Establishment Clause.

By a five-justice majority, the Court denied the constitutional attack. It rejected the claim that the purpose or primary effect of the crèche's inclusion was to affiliate the city with the Christian beliefs associated with Christmas. Viewing the display within the context of the city's celebration of a national public holiday, the majority concluded that the crèche served the legitimate secular purpose of symbolically depicting the historical origins of the Christmas holiday. In contrast, five years later, in Allegheny County v. American Civil Liberties Union (1989), the Court found the display of the crèche in a public building, ungarnished by other holiday decorations, to violate the Establishment Clause.

Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, supplying the crucial fifth vote, wrote a separate concurrence rejecting traditional Establishment Clause analysis and substituting the question whether government intends or is perceived to endorse religion. This position, introduced in Lynch, seemed to have gained majority support in Allegheny County, at least where the display of religious symbols is at issue.

Lynch generally signified a reduction in the separation of church and state, finding instead a constitutional mandate for religious accommodation.

Stanley Ingber

Subjects: Law.


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