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County of Allegheny v. ACLU Greater Pittsburgh Chapter

492 U.S. 573 (1989)

Facts of the Case:

This case judged the constitutionality of two holiday displays in downtown Pittsburgh. One was a crèche outside the Allegheny County Courthouse and the other a menorah outside the City-County Building. The Court of Appeals declared both displays were in violation of the First Amendment because they endorsed religion.


In a deeply fragmented decision, the Court ruled that while the crèche was unconstitutional, the menorah display was not.

Plurality Opinion: (Justice Blackmun)

Unlike in Lynch v. Donnelly in which the Court allowed a city in Rhode Island to display a crèche as part of a holiday display, the Pittsburgh display was not used in conjunction with seasonal decorations. Because of this independence along with the prominent place the crèche occupies (which signals government endorsement), the display is judged to have a religious purpose. The fact that the crèche was set up by a private organization (the Holy Name Society-a Roman Catholic group) does not reduce the apparent endorsement by the government of the display.

Unlike the crèche, the menorah does not have an exclusively religious message. The menorah was placed next to "a Christmas tree and a sign saluting liberty" which the Court considers significant. Instead of endorsing any religious group, the display recognizes the holidays as "part of the same winter-holiday season". Therefore, the display in its entirety does not endorse or disapprove of any religion, and the menorah may remain.

Dissenting Opinion: (Justice Kennedy:)

While the menorah is constitutionally permissible, the Crèche ought to be as well.  The display of the Crèche does not violate the Establishment Clause because it does not have the effect of advancing or inhibiting religion.  Furthermore, the statute again does not violate the Establishment Clause because the clause does not mandate there be no contact between government and religion, are an "government policies of accommodation, acknowledgement, and support for religion are an accepted part of our cultural heritage."


Although it professes to do otherwise, this decision appears to allow the existence of competing religious symbols to convey a message of acceptance of religious plurality. While a symbol might individually be unconstitutional, its inclusion with other secular/seasonal decorations may offset the message sent. As a result, communities who desire holiday decorations must create a display that does not send the message of endorsing a particular religion to the exclusion of others.

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