Celebrating Christmas: The Plastic Reindeer Rule; Analysis of Lynch v. Donnelly

8 years ago
This article was written by a member of the SheKnows Community. It has not been edited, vetted or reviewed by our editorial staff, and any opinions expressed herein are the writer’s own.

Creche A Season's Greeting

I celebrate Christmas. And I love everything about this holiday. I love getting our Christmas tree from the same tree guy every year. I love listening to Christmas music on the radio (the only time I ever turn my dial from 89.3 the Current) and singing along with the familiar carols. I love getting out the ornaments and thinking about the history of each one. I love baking and eating Christmas cookies. I love reading Christmas story books with my boys. I love how Darling 1 has had "Twas the Night Before Christmas" memorized since he was 2 years old. I love getting out my nativity scene music box; the one I've had since I was 5 years old. I love retelling the story of Mary and Joseph and the birth of Baby Jesus to my Darlings. I love shopping for all the dear ones in my life. I love the good cheer that exudes from most people around this time of year. I love the cold and the snow that signal that Christmas is near here in Minnesota. I love getting Christmas cards in the mail. I even love the hustle and bustle in the shops and malls. I really love everything about this holly jolly season.

And while I go about with "Merry Christmas" on my lips from the day after Thanksgiving until the day after Christmas, I am quite aware that others celebrate Hanukkah, winter solstice, Kwanzaa, a purely secular Christmas with Santa, Rudolph, gift giving and merry making with family and friends, or perhaps celebrate nothing at all around this time of year. And to that I say, "Thank God." After all, historically we are a democracy built on freedom of religion and the right to be different from each other; a great melting pot of people. Let's not forget that the Pilgrims came to America to have the freedom to practice their religion as they saw fit and not have to conform to someone else's religious views.

A Wall of Separation

However, our country is historically a deeply religious country, and while we separate church from state, the U.S. Supreme Court has acknowledged the vital role religion has played in our country, and further acknowledges that our country accommodates all faiths and religions and bears no hostility to any particular religion or lack thereof.

The concept of the separation of church and state, also known as the Establishment Clause, began with a letter written by Thomas Jefferson in 1802 to the Danbury Baptists, a religious minority in CT. In this letter, Jefferson states, "Believing with you that religion is a matter which lies solely between Man & his God, that he owes account to none other for his faith or his worship, that the legitimate powers of government reach actions only, & not opinions, I contemplate with sovereign reverence that act of the whole American people which declared that their legislature should 'make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof,' thus building a wall of separation between Church & State."

In other words, Jefferson, a fervent Christian, so deeply believed that his government should have no involvement in his religious views or practice that he thought it best to keep religion and the practice thereof out of government functions, buildings and laws.

Based on this "wall of separation" a great many lawsuits have been brought before the Federal Circuit Courts and the U.S. Supreme Court. During this week, the week leading up to Christmas, a religious holiday and also a federal holiday, there is one case in particular that sticks out in my mind.

Lynch v. Donnelly

  1. The Facts

In 1983, a few residents of Pawtucket, R.I. and members of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) filed suit against the City of Pawtucket for allowing a City owned crèche, or nativity scene, to be included in a Christmas holiday display in a local nonprofit-owned park. The crèche was not the only piece included. Also present in the park display: "a Santa Claus house, reindeer pulling Santa's sleigh, candy-striped poles, a Christmas tree, carolers, cutout figures representing such characters as a clown, an elephant, and a teddy bear, hundreds of colored lights, a large banner that read 'SEASONS GREETINGS.'" These city-owned figures and decorations, both secular and non-secular, had been on display every Christmas season for the 40 years prior to this lawsuit.

  1. The Court's Decision

In a 5-4 Decision, the Court held that Pawtucket did not violate the Establishment Clause by including a crèche in the holiday display:

"the city has a secular purpose for including the crèche in its Christmas display and has not impermissibly advanced religion or created an excessive entanglement between religion and government. The display is sponsored by the city to celebrate the Holiday recognized by Congress and national tradition and to depict the origins of that Holiday; these are legitimate secular purposes. Whatever benefit to one faith or religion or to all religions inclusion of the crèche in the display effects, is indirect, remote, and incidental, and is no more an advancement or endorsement of religion than the congressional and executive recognition of the origins of Christmas, or the exhibition of religious paintings in governmentally supported museums. This Court is unable to discern a greater aid to religion from the inclusion of the crèche than from the substantial benefits previously held not violative of the Establishment Clause. As to administrative entanglement, there is no evidence of contact with church authorities concerning the content or design of the exhibition prior to or since the city's purchase of the crèche. No expenditures for maintenance of the crèche have been necessary, and, since the city owns the crèche, now valued at $200, the tangible material it contributes is de minimis. Political divisiveness alone cannot serve to invalidate otherwise permissible conduct, and, in any event, apart from the instant litigation, there is no evidence of political friction or divisiveness over the crèche in the 40-year history of the city's Christmas celebration."

Lynch v. Donnelly, 465 U.S. 668 (1984)


  1. The Analysis

The Court used the three-prong test from Lemon v. Kurtzman, a 1973 case. The Lemon test has three elements: 1) whether the statute has a secular purpose; 2) whether the principle or primary effect of the statute advances or inhibits religion; and 3) whether the statute fosters "an excessive government entanglement with religion.

The Court decided that the crèche along with all of the secular decorations included did not advance religion. In fact, the Court held the crèche was merely one of the symbols of our country's traditional Christmas celebration when the decorations were viewed as a whole. Hence the reason this decision was dubbed the "plastic reindeer rule," which is to say that if there are a variety of secular items along with a nativity scene representing traditional Christmas celebration, the display alone, not accounting for other factors that may be present, doesn't violate the Establishment Clause.

The Court recognized the undeniable role religion has played in American life and government. The Court further noted that, "To forbid the use of this one passive symbol while hymns and carols are sung and played in public places including schools, and while Congress and state legislatures open public sessions with prayers, would be an overreaction contrary to this Nation's history and this Court's holdings."

The "plastic reindeer rule" has stood the test of time despite lawsuits and lower court rulings that have tried to incorporate a more exacting test or rule.

Other Significant Holiday Cases

  • County of Allegheny v. American Civil Liberties Union, 492 US 573 (1989): The Court held that a single crèche with accompanying banner declaring, "Gloria in Excelsis Deo" displayed in a courthouse was in violation of the First Amendment's Establishment Clause. On the other hand, an eighteen foot menorah and forty-five foot Christmas tree together with a sign proclaiming "liberty" on display outside a government building were not unconstitutional.  
  • Kaplan v. City of Burlington, 496 US 926 (1990): A solitary menorah displayed in a city park during Chanukah was found to be in violation of the Establishment Clause due to the lack of additional secular symbols combined with the clearly religious symbolism of the menorah.
  • ACLU v. Schundler, 520 US 1265 (1997): The Court found Jersey City in violation of the Establishment Clause because it had on public display only a menorah and crèche. The Court slapped them with a permanent injunction. Jersey City then added a wooden sled and figures depicting Santa Claus and Frosty the Snowman to its display. The Court did then modify the injunction after this attempt to secularize the display, but the Third Circuit made a point to note that the Jersey's City religious statement was still clear. This Court's ruling attempted to establish a more stringent holiday display test than the Supreme Court has done, thus far.

The Scoop

I have always enjoyed this line of cases. And every time I pass by a public holiday display I think of the "plastic reindeer rule" and all that encompasses. Maybe you will too now. Have a delightful holiday week if in fact you will be celebrating anything this weekend. I have decided to post a Motherly Advice post on Thursday and take the rest of the week off. I will summarize the Sunday Spotlight Article and post a new one on Sunday. By the by, if you have yet to weigh in with your opinion or read the great comments, please drop by this week's Sunday Spotlight Article now. Over and out…


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