Allegheny County v. Greater Pittsburgh ACLU

In Allegheny County v. Greater Pittsburgh ACLU (1989) 492 U.S. 573, the court considered whether a December holiday display of a creche in a county courthouse and a menorah outside a city and county building violated the establishment clause. In deciding that question the majority stated that "whatever else the Establishment Clause may mean . . ., it certainly means at the very least that government may not demonstrate a preference for one particular sect or creed (including a preference for Christianity over other religions). 'The clearest command of the Establishment Clause is that one religious denomination cannot be officially preferred over another.' " (Id. at p. 605.) Nor can government appear "to take a position on questions of religious belief or from 'making adherence to a religion relevant in any way to a person's standing in the political community.' " (Id. at p. 594.) In response to Justice Kennedy's concern about the court's "latent hostility" or "callous indifference" towards religion, Justice Blackmun writing for the majority stated: "On the contrary, the Constitution mandates that the government remain secular, rather than affiliate itself with religious beliefs or institutions, precisely in order to avoid discrimination among citizens on the basis of their religious faiths.A secular state, it must be remembered, is not the same as an atheistic or antireligious state. A secular state establishes neither atheism nor religion as its official creed." (Allegheny, supra, 492 U.S. at p. 610.) The court in Allegheny, differentiating between the secular and religious aspects of the celebration of Christmas, stated: "Celebrating Christmas as a religious, as opposed to a secular, holiday, necessarily entails professing, proclaiming, or believing that Jesus of Nazareth, born in a manger in Bethlehem, is the Christ, the Messiah. If the government celebrates Christmas as a religious holiday (for example, by issuing an official proclamation saying: 'We rejoice in the glory of Christ's birth!'), it means that the government really is declaring Jesus to be the Messiah, a specifically Christian belief. In contrast, confining the government's own celebration of Christmas to the holiday's secular aspects does not favor the religious beliefs of non-Christians over those of Christians. Rather, it simply permits the government to acknowledge the holiday without expressing an allegiance to Christian beliefs, an allegiance that would truly favor Christians over non-Christians." (Allegheny, supra, 492 U.S. at pp. 611-612.) The court's discussion of Marsh in Allegheny reflects that it considered the removal of references to Christ to have been essential to the Marsh ruling: "Indeed, in Marsh itself, the Court recognized that not even the 'unique' history of legislative prayer can justify contemporary legislative prayers that have the effect of affiliating the government with any one specific faith or belief. The legislative prayers involved in Marsh did not violate this principle because the particular chaplain had 'removed all references to Christ.' " (Allegheny County v. Greater Pittsburgh ACLU, supra, 492 U.S. at p. 603.)