Allegheny County v. Greater Pittsburgh ACLU, Chabad v. ACLU et al., City of Pittsburgh v. ACLU, Greater Pittsburgh Chapter, et al.

Decided on July 3, 1989; 492 US 573

The Court upheld the right of states to celebrate the Christmas holiday with a joint Menorah and Christmas tree display, but a nativity scene could not be displayed alone on the courthouse steps.



A. Issues Discussed: Establishment of Religion, religious displays in public places

B. Legal Question Presented:

Do holiday displays on public property violate the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment?


A. Background:

"This litigation concerns the constitutionality of two recurring holiday displays located on public property in downtown Pittsburgh.

The first, a creche depicting the Christian Nativity scene, was placed on the Grand Staircase of the Allegheny County Courthouse, which is the 'main,' 'most beautiful,' and 'most public' part of the courthouse. The creche was donated by the Holy Name Society, a Roman Catholic group, and bore a sign to that effect. Its manger had at its crest an angel bearing a banner proclaiming 'Gloria in Excelsis Deo,' meaning 'Glory to God in the Highest.'

The second of the holiday displays in question was an 18-foot Chanukah menorah or candelabrum, which was placed just outside the City-County Building next to the city's 45-foot decorated Christmas tree. At the foot of the tree was a sign bearing the mayor's name and containing text declaring the city's 'salute to liberty.' The menorah is owned by Chabad, a Jewish group, but is stored, erected, and removed each year by the city.

Respondents, the Greater Pittsburgh Chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union and seven local residents, filed suit seeking permanently to enjoin the county from displaying the creche and the city from displaying the menorah on the ground that the displays violated the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment, made applicable to state governments by the Fourteenth Amendment. The District Court denied relief, relying on Lynch v. Donnelly, which held that a city's inclusion of a creche in its annual Christmas display in a private park did not violate the Establishment Clause. The Court of Appeals reversed, distinguishing Lynch v. Donnelly, and holding that the creche and the menorah in the present case must be understood as an impermissible governmental endorsement of Christianity and Judaism under Lemon v. Kurtzman."

On certiorari, the US Supreme Court affirmed in part and reversed in part the judgment of the Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit.

B. Counsel of Record:
Opposing Side
Unavailable Unavailable
C. The Arguments:
Opposing Side
Unavailable Unavailable
Opposing Side
Roslyn M. Litman argued the cause for respondents. With her on the brief for respondents American Civil Liberties Union et al. were Jon Pushinsky, James B. Lieber, John A. Powell, and Steven R. Shapiro. Ruti Teitel, Jeffrey P. Sinensky, Steven M. Freeman, Richard E. Shevitz, and Jill L. Kahn filed a brief for respondent Tunador.

Briefs of amici curiae urging affirmance were filed for the American Jewish Committee et al. by Samuel Rabinove, Richard T. Foltin, James G. Greilsheimer, Alan M. Klinger, David A. Stein, Lauren G. Klein, and Lee Boothby; and for the American Jewish Congress et al. by Arlene Fickler, Marc D. Stern, Lois C. Waldman, and Amy Adelson.
Peter Buscemi argued the cause for petitioners. With him on the briefs were George M. Janocsko, Robert L. McTiernan, D. R. Pellegrini, and George. R. Specter. Nathan Lewin argued the cause for petitioner in Chabad v. ACLU. With him on the briefs was Charles H. Saul.

Briefs of amici curiae urging reversal were filed for the United States by Solicitor General Fried, Deputy Solicitor General Ayer, and Michael K. Kellogg; for the city of Warren, Michigan, by Robert E. Williams; for Concerned Women for America by Jordan W. Lorence, Cimron Campbell, and Wendell R. Bird; for the National Jewish Commission on Law and Public Affairs by Dennis Rapps and A. David Stern; and for the National Legal Foundation by Douglas W. Davis, Robert K. Skolrood, and William C. Wood, Jr.

"The [Establishment] Clause [of the First Amendment], at the very least, prohibits government from appearing 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.'

When viewed in its overall context, the creche display violates the Establishment Clause. The creche angel's words endorse a patently Christian message: Glory to God for the birth of Jesus Christ.

Although the government may acknowledge Christmas as a cultural phenomenon, it may not observe it as a Christian holy day by suggesting that people praise God for the birth of Jesus...History cannot legitimate practices like the creche display that demonstrate the government's allegiance to a particular sect or creed.

The menorah display does not have the prohibited effect of endorsing religion, given its 'particular physical setting.' Its combined display with a Christmas tree and a sign saluting liberty does not impermissibly endorse both the Christian and Jewish faiths, but simply recognizes that both Christmas and Chanukah are part of the same winter-holiday season, which has attained a secular status in our society. We agree that the creche display has that unconstitutional effect [of violating the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment] but reverse the Court of Appeals' judgment regarding the menorah display."

The US Supreme Court affirmed in part and reversed in part the Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit judgment.

Justice Vote: 9 Pro vs. 0 Con
  • Blackmun, H. Pro (Wrote majority opinion)
  • Stevens, JP. Pro (Wrote concurring dissenting opinion)
  • O'Connor, SD. Pro (Wrote concurring opinion)
  • Brennan, W. Pro (Wrote concurring dissenting opinion)
  • Kennedy, A. Pro (Wrote concurring dissenting opinion)
  • Marshall, T. Pro (Joined majority opinion)
  • Rehnquist, W. Pro (Joined majority opinion)
  • White, B. Pro (Joined majority opinion)
  • Scalia, A. Pro (Joined majority opinion)

The ACLU, as party of record, urged affirmance of the judgment of the Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit; the Supreme Court affirmed in part and reversed in part in a 9-0 vote, giving the ACLU an apparent win.