December 15, 2014

Conflicts continue over nativity scenes on public property

Conflicts continue over nativity scenes on public property
(Credit: Matthew Roberts)

It’s become a holiday tradition.

Each year, in the weeks leading up to Christmas, countless towns and localities around the United States allow a Christmas nativity scene or crèche to be put on government property, often in front of a town hall or a courthouse. And each year, in at least a few of these places, people object to these displays – sometimes through legal action, arguing that the displays violate the Establishment Clause of the Constitution’s First Amendment.

Most Americans favor allowing religious displays like nativity scenes to be placed on government property.Already this year, controversies over the placement of nativity scenes have arisen in places like Portsmouth, Virginia; Baxter County, Arkansas; and Cherokee County, Texas. So far, officials in these and other places have not been forced to remove their crèches.

A new Pew Research Center survey finds that most Americans favor allowing religious displays like nativity scenes to be placed on government property. The survey found that 44% of U.S. adults say that Christian symbols should be allowed even if they are not accompanied by symbols from other faiths, such as Hanukkah menorahs, while another 28% say Christian symbols should be permitted as long as they are accompanied by symbols of other religions.

The Supreme Court has addressed the constitutionality of nativity scenes on public property on more than one occasion. In one case, Lynch v. Donnelly (1984), the court ruled that a nativity scene in a shopping district in Pawtucket, Rhode Island, did not promote or endorse Christianity and thus did not violate the Establishment Clause because the display also contained secular symbols of Christmas, such as a Santa Claus and reindeer.

The Lynch decision spawned what has become known as the “reindeer rule,” an assumption that a religious nativity scene can survive a court challenge as long as it is part of larger holiday display that contains secular holiday symbols or symbols from other religious traditions.

This perspective was bolstered by a second Supreme Court decision, County of Allegheny v. ACLU (1989). In that case, a fractured court ruled unconstitutional a nativity scene inside the Allegheny County Courthouse in Pittsburgh, which was unaccompanied by any other symbols or displays. In the same ruling, the court permitted a different religious display (a Hanukkah menorah) outside a government building because it also included more secular symbols, such as a Christmas tree and a sign reading “salute to liberty.”

Since then, the Supreme Court has not addressed the issue. But lower courts have considered the details of many cases, and have come to different decisions based on many factors, including the precise location and content of a display and the religious diversity of a community.

Recently, perhaps in response to legal precedent, some public spaces have been opened during the holidays to nontraditional groups, making for strange bedfellows. This year, for instance, the rotunda of the Florida state capitol is expected to house a number of displays, including two nativity scenes and a diorama depicting an angel being cast into hell.

The diorama is sponsored by the Satanic Temple, which threatened to sue the state after Florida officials rejected the group’s proposed display last year as “grossly offensive.” This year, it was approved, along with a Festivus pole (from a made-up holiday on “Seinfeld”) and a display dedicated to the Flying Spaghetti Monster.

Topics: Christians and Christianity, Religion and Government

  1. Photo of David Masci

    is a senior writer/editor focusing on religion at Pew Research Center.

25 Comments

  1. ArrowJLC11 months ago

    If the Government wants to allow people to put nativity scenes and the like on federal property, then so be it. If you have a problem with it, just don’t go there. Simple. Or you could ask to put another religion up there. I personally believe the system is fine as it is.

  2. Gordon Knott2 years ago

    The founders believed this to be so important they made it the first sentence in the Bill of Rights and in the First Amendment to the Constitution. It is prohibitory. “CONGRESS” shall make no law…establishing….or prohibiting the free exercise thereof. The Supreme Court, usurping Congressional and State powers established in Article V of the Constitution, has confused and misinterpreted the founders intent. They clearly intended to prevent a Federal Religion, but did not intent to restrict the States or the people’s free religious exercise. The founders, from the very beginning, not only allowed religion on Federal property, but included such symbolism on and in Federal edifices. Additionally, States where not prohibited from establishment and several State religions were formed. Freedom OF religion is inalienable. Freedom FROM religion is not.

  3. Gordon Notte2 years ago

    The founders believed this to be so important they made it the first sentence in the Bill of Rights and in the First Amendment to the Constitution. It is prohibitory to thr Federal Government. “CONGRESS” shall make no law…establishing….or prohibiting the free exercise thereof. The Supreme Court, usurping Congressional and State powers established in Article V of the Constitution, has confused and misinterpreted the founders intent. They clearly intended to prevent a Federal Religion, but did not intend to restrict the States or the people’s free religious practices. The founders, from the very beginning, not only allowed religion on Federal property, but included such symbolism on and in Federal edifices. Additionally, States where not prohibited from establishment and several State religions were formed. Freedom OF religion is an inalienable right. Freedom FROM religion is not.

  4. Gordon Nott2 years ago

    The Ist.Amenment is Prohibitive. It is the very first of the Bill of Rights and prohibits the Federal CONGRESS from creating a Federal religion. No such Constitutional prohibitions applies to the States. It also prohibits the Federal CONGRESS from interfering in religious practices. It does not prohibit nativity or any other displays on federal property singularly or in combination with others. It, obviously, was the founders intent to allow religious symbols on Federal property, because they themselves added hundreds of such symbols to the Federal edifeces that they approved and built in their lifetime. Freedom of Religion is an inalienable right. Freedom From Religion is not. Yet, the Supreme Court has chosen to change (a process narrowly defined in Article V.) the meaning, thereby violate the Constitution it has sworn to uphold, and alter the intent of the founder, ant the Constitution it’s self.

  5. Barbara Leary2 years ago

    Why can religious displays be put up on church property? Most churces are in centrally located places and have lawns in front of their buildings. There is plenty of room for their nativity scene. Why do we have to have religious displays – any religion – at any public building? Displays can also be put on every private lawn in town if desired. It’s not as if religious groups have no place to display their decorations. People came to this country for freedom of religion – any religion (or lack of religion) they chose. That’s why this is unconstitutional. Why can’t people accept that there are other perfectly valid belief systems other than their own and just try to get along.

  6. Ethan X2 years ago

    Why do I get the sense that Pew is push polling religion?

    Let’s put this another way. A FULL majority of Americans (56%) are unwilling to say they want Christmas displays on public property if they solely depict Christian religious scenes.

    Now, isn’t that better?

    Around the world, and throughout history religion has been a curse on the species. It’s time we grew up and gave up our ancient desert nomadic superstitions.

  7. Bill2 years ago

    The one good finding about a Nativity scene is that it gets back to the real meaning of Christmas. Not Santa Clauses, raindeer, etc. That said it is unconstitutional.

    1. Paul ShadowCat2 years ago

      The “real” meaning of christmas? Do the research!! christmas is a made up date to replace a pagan holiday .The church made up the date so they could get people to convert from other religions. Christmas was to replace rebirth of the sun god (AKA) shortest day of the year. easter replaces spring fertility rights. The true meaning of the Christian religion is 1.. control of the masses , and 2..subjugation of women ) . Pagans ,Wiccans, Native American , Etc. religions all gave an equal or higher position to women. Christians hate that, they even wrote in their bible that a women must always OBEY her Husband, father, brother.. Meanwhile the church slaughters millions in the gods name . Anyone with a brain not clouded with blind obedience can look at christianity and see it for what it truly is.

      1. Tim10 months ago

        wow uuhh… eehhh…. no. No one knows the exact date when Jesus was born but we estimated that it was approximately Dec.

  8. noapologiesnessesary2 years ago

    please read the law.
    IT IS UNCONSTITUTIONAL.
    this is not majority rules.
    also understand for those that follow any bible:
    it is yours. keep it.
    it is not mine. IT HAS ZERO INFLUENCE IN MY LIFE.

  9. Cult O’Clock2 years ago

    It’s never been about what the majority of Americans desire. It’s about what the lawyers and malcontents the blood suckers represent are paid to force feed the majority of Americans who simply want to get along without controversy.

  10. Jim2 years ago

    The country was founded on tolerance and freedom of religion. The display of a creche or of a menora etc is an expression of faith by those that have such faith in support of government ideals allowing the right to express their freedom. To prohibit that expression is both intolerant and I believe not in the spirit of the founding fathers and the constitution. It is not a suppression of any other religion or view and certainly not an exhibit of intolerance.

    I also don’t see how any exhibit of a religious practice in a public place in any way diminishes any individuals rights or legal position.

  11. woody2 years ago

    MY VOTE IS TO ALLOW THE NAVITIVY SCENE ANYWHERE THEY WANT TO DISPLAY IT.

  12. Patrish2 years ago

    Well if there are nativity scenes on government property it means tax payers money was probably spend to buy them, so yes, I resent them. I’m not religious, throw a few reindeer in and I’m probably let it pass.

  13. Kate2 years ago

    There is absolutely no need for nativity scenes to be displayed on public property.
    I have no problem with churches having them for public viewing, or private residences displaying them but no government building, that is used and maintained by people of all religious faiths, should have this kind of display. I suspect Christians would not appreciate government buildings offering scenes from the Torah or Koran, so why allow something that is strictly Christian in nature?

  14. Steve2 years ago

    This is a Christian Country. I am an jewish and I am not against this because this is a christian country.

    1. Michael Davis2 years ago

      Please read the First Amendment and show me where it says this is a “christian country”.

      1. Richard Young2 years ago

        Since when was it Christian? The founding fathers were Deists.

    2. David2 years ago

      Nope, you’re wrong. The First Amendment says that even if the majority of the country identifies with one specific religion, that religion is not allowed to interfere with the running of the government, nor is the government allowed to endorse it.

      Nativity scenes on public lands, depicting the birth of one specific religion’s deity, is an obvious violation of the law of the Constitution.

      1. Andrew Huisman11 months ago

        Actually, the whole thing about Freedom of Religion had nothing to do with Christianity interfering with the government. To put it elegantly, its that The government was imposing on the Christians, not that the Christians were imposing on the government.

    3. Ben2 years ago

      As far as my education goes, this country was founded by Christians from Europe and not by Atheists or Moslems. If I’m wrong, let me know. You may even know what the percentage of Christians is in the USA.

      1. Mike G2 years ago

        The nation was founded by the men who wrote the Constitution. They deliberately ensured that there would be no national religion, and that the government could not endorse any religion over another. This was done despite the fact that the Europeans who came to steal the land from its native inhabitants were, indeed, mostly Christians.

  15. Gabriel Landry2 years ago

    I find these displays troubling because they represent a statement that if I as a citizen does not accept these symbols as part of the political standard in this community, then my views make me less likely to receive fair treatment under the law. I don’t object to anyone accepting Jesus Crist as their God. It should make no difference what your beliefs are. It’s just that my views on religion should not be part of the discussion in political discourse.

  16. Mark L2 years ago

    My thought is, if they don’t agree with having a Nativity scene, then don’t look at it. If these same people don’t like a certain food, do they still eat it? No!

    1. Martin Chiaravalloti2 years ago

      Comparing religious displays on Government property to food choice is a poor analogy!