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Rudolph, on this holiday, won't you save the town display?

In Lynch v. Donnelly (1984), the Supreme Court upheld a city’s Nativity scene, or “creche,” against an Establishment Clause challenge. Five years later, in County of Allegheny v. ACLU (1989), the Court ruled against a creche on county courthouse steps but sustained an 18-foot menorah outside another government building. The doctrinal difference between these two cases has come to be known as the reindeer rule, or the Rudolph test, making “the most famous reindeer of all” the most constitutionally salient—a Christmas litmus test to determine what the government is actually celebrating.

Lynch v. Donnelly

Pawtucket, Rhode Island, included a creche in its annual Christmas display for over 40 years, along with items like Santa’s house, a Christmas tree, a banner reading “Season’s Greetings,” and a reindeer pulling a sleigh. By a 5-4 vote, the Supreme Court held that the display, specifically the creche, did not violate the Establishment Clause.

The Court grounded its decision in the legitimate secular purpose of the creche. In context, the entire display was merely “sponsored by the city to celebrate the Holiday and to depict the origins of that Holiday,” and the creche was “passive,” “like a painting” in a government-sponsored museum. Because the display also included many secular symbols of Christmas, such as a reindeer and a sleigh, the display engendered “a friendly community spirit of goodwill in keeping with the season,” and any benefit “to one faith or religion or to all religions, [was] indirect, remote, and incidental.” Thus, the reindeer rule was born.

In her concurring opinion, Justice O’Connor added that the “celebration of public holidays, which have cultural significance even if they also have religious aspects, is a legitimate secular purpose.” Furthermore, Justice O’Connor argued that the “proper inquiry” as to the purpose or primary effect of the display was “whether the government intends to convey a message of endorsement or disapproval of religion.” This endorsement test was later expressly adopted in Allegheny.

County of Allegheny v. ACLU

Allegheny presented two questions under the Establishment Clause and resulted in six opinions, including three opinions concurring in part and dissenting in part, for opposite reasons.

The first question concerned a creche on the staircase of the county courthouse, surrounded by poinsettia plants, two Christmas trees, and an angel bearing a banner that read, “Gloria in Excelsis Deo,” or “Glory to God in the Highest.” Five justices found this display to endorse Christianity and thus violate the First Amendment.

The second display stood in front of the Pittsburgh City-County Building and featured a 45-foot Christmas tree, an 18-foot menorah, and a plaque entitled “Salute to Liberty.” Six justices, including two who voted to strike down the county creche, held that the menorah did not impermissibly advance Judaism and thus did not violate the Establishment Clause.

To Justices Blackmun and O’Connor, the difference turned “on [the displays’] setting” in context. Distinguishing the creche in Lynch, Justice Blackmun wrote that the Allegheny Nativity had “nothing in the context of the display [to detract] from the creche’s religious message.” Reiterating the reindeer rule, Justice Blackmun noted that in Lynch, “Santa’s house and his reindeer were objects of attention separate from the creche, and had their specific visual story to tell.”

Turning to the menorah, Justice Blackmun explained that while the creche endorsed a “patently Christian message,” “the menorah’s message is not exclusively religious” but “is the primary visual symbol for a holiday that, like Christmas, has both religious and secular dimensions.” Justice Blackmun concluded that the effect of the second display was most plausibly an “overall holiday setting,” and Justice O’Connor added that the message did not endorse religion but “pluralism and freedom to choose one’s own beliefs.”

Seven justices disagreed with the distinction. Justices Brennan, Marshall, and Stevens believed that both displays were “incompatible with the separation of church and state demanded by our Constitution” and showed “favoritism towards Christianity, Judaism, or both.” Thus, to them, “the answer as to the first display supplied the answer to the second.”

Writing for the remaining four, Justice Kennedy accused the majority of adopting a view that “reflects an unjustified hostility toward religion, a hostility inconsistent with our history.” These justices would have upheld both displays as “purely passive symbols of religious holidays,” arguing that “government, if it chooses, may participate in sharing with its citizens the joy of the holiday season.” Justice Kennedy continued, “If government is to participate in its citizens’ celebration of a holiday that contains both a secular and a religious component, enforced recognition of only the secular aspect would signify [a] callous indifference toward religious faith” and ultimately disfavor religious adherents.

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The result of all of this, of course, is a messy and unclear doctrine surrounding holiday displays, and the Supreme Court hasn’t clarified the issue in thirty years. But at least one thing is clear: a holiday display is more likely to withstand constitutional scrutiny when reindeer are involved.