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Lynch v. Donnelly

Lynch v. Donnelly
Supreme Court of the United States
Argued October 4, 1983
Decided March 5, 1984
Full case name Dennis M. Lynch, Mayor of Pawtucket, et al. v. Daniel Donnelly, et al.
Citations 465 more)
104 S. Ct. 1355; 79 L. Ed. 2d 604; 1984 U.S. LEXIS 37; 52 U.S.L.W. 4317
The city of Pawtucket's nativity scene does not violate the Establishment Clause.
Court membership
Case opinions
Majority Burger, joined by White, Powell, Rehnquist, O'Connor
Concurrence O'Connor
Dissent Brennan, joined by Marshall, Blackmun, Stevens
Dissent Blackmun, joined by Stevens
Laws applied
First Amendment

Lynch v. Donnelly, 465 U.S. 668 (1984), was a United States Supreme Court case challenging the legality of Christmas decorations on town property.


Pawtucket, Rhode Island's annual Christmas display in the city's shopping district, consisting of a Santa Claus house, a Christmas tree, a banner reading "Season's Greetings," and a crèche, was challenged in court. The crèche had been a part of the display since at least 1943.[1] The plaintiffs brought the suit to the District Court of Rhode Island, which permanently enjoined the city from displaying the Nativity scene in violation of the Establishment Clause. The Court of Appeals for the First Circuit affirmed the district court's ruling. The city then petitioned to the U.S. Supreme Court for certiorari.


The issue at hand was whether the inclusion of a crèche in the city's Christmas display violates the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment to the United States Constitution. The plaintiffs alleged that the display violated the Establishment Clause.


The Supreme Court reversed previous rulings in a vote of 5-4, ruling that the display was not an effort to advocate a particular religious message and had "legitimate secular purposes."

Chief Justice Burger delivered the opinion of the Court, in which White, Powell, Rehnquist, and O'Connor joined.[2] The Court held that the crèche did not violate the Establishment Clause based on the test created in Lemon v. Kurtzman. They ruled that the crèche is a passive representation of religion and that there was "insufficient evidence to establish that the inclusion of the crèche is a purposeful or surreptitious effort to express some kind of subtle governmental advocacy of a particular religious" view. They also stated that the Constitution "affirmatively mandates accommodation, not merely tolerance of all religions, and forbids hostility toward any."

The Court ruled that the crèche has a legitimate secular purpose within a larger holiday display to celebrate the season and the origins of Christmas which has long been a part of Western culture. The Federal "Government has long recognized—-indeed it has subsidized-—holidays with religious significance." For example, the first Congress that passed the First Amendment enacted legislation providing for paid Chaplains in the House and Senate, and "It has long been the practice that federal employees are released from duties on Thanksgiving and Christmas while being paid." The court compared the crèche to the display of religious paintings in government funded museums. In addition, the crèche requires only minimal expenses for assembly and dismantling. The Court also stated, "no inquiry into potential political divisiveness is even called for" because the situation does not involve direct aid to church-sponsored organizations and because the crèche been displayed for 40 years with no problems.


Justice O’Connor, in her concurring opinion, offered a "clarification" of how the Establishment Clause should be read:

The Establishment Clause prohibits government from making adherence to a religion relevant in any way to a person's standing in the political community. Government can run afoul of that prohibition in two principal ways. One is excessive entanglement with religious institutions ...The second and more direct infringement is government endorsement or disapproval of religion. Endorsement sends a message to nonadherents that they are outsiders, not full members of the political community, and an accompanying message to adherents that they are insiders, favored members of the political community.

This is sometimes referred to as the "Endorsement Test." A law which fails this test is found to be unconstitutional because it "endorses" religion or religious beliefs in such a way that it tells those who agree that they are favored insiders and those who disagree that they are disfavored outsiders. The other side of the coin would be the "disapproval" of religion or religious beliefs in such a way that those who agree with the beliefs are told that they are disfavored outsiders while those who disagree with the beliefs are told that they are favored insiders.


Justices Brennan, Marshall, Blackmun, and Stevens dissented. The dissenting opinion argued that the case did not pass the Lemon test.[3][4] The secular display surrounding their secular purpose of celebrating of a national holiday could have been done without a clearly religious symbol that supports only one religion to the exclusion of others giving one group public approval of their views. Even if other religious groups are allowed to include “‘competing efforts [by religious groups] to gain or maintain the support of government’ may ‘occasio[n] considerable civil strife’” The religious crèche is also placed in a central location within the display, which makes even less of the Court’s idea that Pawtucket was just including all of the traditional images. The dissenting opinion also mentions that it cannot be compared to a religious display in a museum because it is not solely being considered as a piece of art but as a religious symbol as well. The government recognition of Christmas previously has only been to recognize the secular parts of Christmas, such as spending time with family. The minority also dissented, noting that "Those who believe in the message of the nativity receive the unique and exclusive benefit of public recognition and approval of their views" and that the creche provides "a significant symbolic benefit to religion..."[3] The dissent argued "The effect on minority religious groups, as well as on those who may reject religion, is to convey the message that their views are not similarly worthy of public recognition nor entitled to public support. It was precisely this sort of chauvinism that the Establishment Clause was intended forever to prohibit."[3]

See also


Further reading

External links

  • Text of Lynch v. Donnelly, 465 U.S. 668 (1984) is available from:  OpenJurist 
  • United States Supreme Court Opinions from Volume 465
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