, Derry, New Hampshire

December 13, 2012

'Silly' legal challenges a sign of the season

About the Law
Andrew Myers

---- — “No holiday season is complete, at least for the courts, without one or more First Amendment challenges to public holiday displays.”

Those are the words of Judge Reena Raggi of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit in a 2006 decision.

The issue there was why the New York schools would allow a Hanukkah menorah and an Islamic star and crescent symbolizing Ramadan, but not the Christian nativity scene.

With each passing year “the holidays” become more and more of a silly season, testing where and how and what Christmas displays are tolerated. Here’s what the research shows.

There is no constitutional violation in a display on government property of a nativity scene where it is included as part of a larger holiday display, including a variety of nonreligious symbols.

In Lynch v. Donnelly, a 1984 U.S. Supreme Court decision, the justices found that religious elements of a display were proper where they were part of a larger holiday expression, including Christmas trees, Santa Claus and other such symbols. This display was set up by a private group, but on government property in Pawtucket, R.I.

Contrary to popular belief, no U.S. Supreme Court case has ever held that the government is prohibited from displaying Christmas trees on government property.

In fact, the court held the opposite in the 1989 case of County of Allegheny v. ACLU, holding that the Christmas tree, unlike the menorah, is not itself a religious symbol.

Although Christmas trees once carried religious connotations, today they typify the secular celebration of Christmas. In that decision the court observed that numerous Americans place Christmas trees in their homes without subscribing to Christian religious beliefs. So, it was held, when a municipal tree stands alone in front of a government building, it is not considered an endorsement of Christian faith.

The Supreme Court in Lynch also stated that Christmas is a national holiday observed for two centuries by people and government officials. Celebrations of such public holidays, the court explained, even if the holidays have a religious aspect, serve a legitimate nonreligious cultural purpose.

When the Massachusetts Registry of Motor Vehicles in Braintree got one single complaint about a Christmas tree, some wall decorations and a Santa Claus in November of this year, the display was hastily torn down. A single complaint brought the monolithic dreaded RMV to its knees, when it is likely the display fully complied with existing law.

To twist a phrase by a famous columnist many Christmases ago: Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus. He exists as long as no one waiting interminably for a license renewal complains.