County of Allegheny v. ACLU (1989)
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The Court looked at whether Allegheny County and the City of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, violated the Establishment clause by the county’s public holiday display of a Christmas nativity scene (creche) and the city’s display of an 18-foot-tall Chanukah menorah next to a 45-foot decorated Christmas tree. In a 5-4 decision, the Court held that the creche display was unconstitutional, but the menorah was permissible. The creche was displayed alone in the courthouse and included an angel holding a banner that said “Gloria in Excelsis Deo” (Latin for “Glory to God in the highest”). The Court said that by including that message and displaying the creche with nothing around it to detract from this religious message, the county was not just celebrating Christmas as a national holiday—which in Lynch v. Donnelly (1984) was ruled permissible despite the holiday’s religious origins—but also was “endorsing a patently Christian message: Glory to God for the birth of Jesus Christ,” and thus violated the Establishment Clause. The city’s menorah and decorated Christmas tree were displayed just outside the City-County building, with a sign at the foot of the tree with the mayor’s name and text declaring the city’s “salute to liberty.” The Court held that by including the menorah with the tree and the sign saluting liberty, “the city conveyed a message of pluralism and freedom of belief” and thus did not violate the Establishment Clause.