'Tis The Season...' To Get To Know a Court Case

Lynch v. Donnelly.  Not what typically comes to mind when you think of Christmas; however, it's an important U.S. Supreme Court case that impacts every American who values their religious freedom.

Lynch v. Donnelly centered around an annual Christmas display by the city of Pawtucket, R.I., and explored and set out the current boundaries of the First Amendment’s "Establishment Clause," which says, in part,

"Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion. …"

Liberal and atheist groups often incorrectly equate the Establishment Clause with the term “the separation of church and state,” as it relates to any government display of religious symbols at Christmas.

At the time of the Lynch v. Donnelly lawsuit, the city of Pawtucket had for 40 years owned and displayed in a park the following items at Christmas: a Santa Claus house, reindeer pulling Santa’s sleigh, candy-striped poles, a Christmas tree, carolers, cutout figures of clowns, an elephant and teddy bear, hundreds of colored lights, a large banner that read, "Seasons Greetings," and a crèche (Nativity scene). In the early 1980’s, several secular groups brought a federal lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of the city’s inclusion of the Nativity scene, alleging it amounted to a government endorsement of religion; thus, violating the First Amendment’s Establishment Clause.

The city lost the preliminary legal rounds in the lower federal courts. The U.S. Supreme Court, however, reversed the lower courts and decided in favor of the city and its crèche. Supreme Court decisions since the 1940s had been increasingly hostile toward government religious involvement of any kind, so this decision was something of a welcome departure from that trend.

For Christians who are used to hearing that the "separation of church and state" means religious expression in the public square is prohibited, it’s useful to know the Court’s decision debunks most of the arguments we usually hear. Here’s what its opinion said, as it began its analysis:

"The Court has sometimes described the Religion Clauses [of the First Amendment] as erecting a ‘wall’ between church and state. … The concept of a ‘wall’ of separation is a useful figure of speech probably deriving from views of Thomas Jefferson. The metaphor has served as a reminder that the Establishment Clause forbids an established church or anything approaching it. But the metaphor itself is not a wholly accurate description of the practical aspects of the relationship that in fact exists between church and state."

The Court further explained that the Establishment Clause does not require complete separation of church and state. In fact, it stated the clause requires accommodation, not merely tolerance, of all religions, and forbids hostility toward any. So how did that reasoning play out for the Nativity scene?

Going back to Pawtucket’s display, the Court rejected the lower courts’ reasoning that the mere inclusion of the Nativity scene served as an "endorsement" of religion, and looked at whether there was an overriding secular purpose for the city’s inclusion of the scene. It found one:

"The display is sponsored by the city to celebrate the holiday and to depict the origins of that holiday. These are legitimate secular purposes."

If you find the phrase "legitimate secular purposes" a little vague, you are not alone. The Supreme Court has had a difficult time, frankly, in coming up with more specific tests in these situations, because each case turns on the particular set of facts at issue: a Nativity scene may be fine in one setting like the Pawtucket display, but wouldn’t be acceptable in another situation. But, to the extent a local government entity wants its Christmas display to pass a constitutional challenge it should always have a secular purpose for including a religious symbol, as the city of Pawtucket did.

Christians might object to hearing a Nativity scene is only acceptable in the public square when accompanied by Santa Claus and reindeer. And, rightly so. If our Founders were alive, they, too, might scratch their heads in bewilderment at some of the court rulings we’ve seen over the years when interpreting the religion clauses of the First Amendment. Nevertheless, it is useful for Christians to understand the current First Amendment landscape, and Lynch v. Donnelly is a key part of it.