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Allegheny County v. American Civil Liberties Union Greater Pittsburgh Chapter

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Significance: The Supreme Court held that a Christmas display focusing predominantly on religious symbols violated the establishment clause of the First Amendment.


In Lynch v. Donnelly (1984), the Supreme Court voted five to four to approve a governmentsponsored nativity scene that also included a reindeer, a clown, and a Santa Claus house. The majority found that the display was in conformity with the demands of the three-part Lemon test established in Lemon v. Kurtzman (1971). Justice Sandra Day O’Connor joined the majority because she concluded that the effect of the display was not to convey a message of either endorsing or disapproving a religion. The Allegheny County case involved two holiday displays located on public property in Pittsburgh. The first was a pious nativity scene without any secular symbols. The judges voted five to four that this display was unconstitutional. Justice Harry A. Blackmun's opinion, which O’Connor joined, was based on the “no endorsement of religion” standard. The same 5-4 majority approved of the second display, a menorah placed next to a Christmas tree. Blackmun asserted that the second display did not promote any religious message. The requirement for including some secular symbols in a seasonal display is sometimes called the “Christmas tree rule.” Justice Anthony M. Kennedy, a dissenter, wanted to rule on the basis of whether there was any “coercion.” The case illustrated the deep divisions of the justices when interpreting the establishment clause.