A Yuletide Rant in Midsummer’s Wake

Posted on June 26, 2013


In 1984, the Supreme Court announced a decision upholding the Constitutionality of a winter holiday display that included, along with a big tree, Santa, toys, a sign that said “Seasons Greetings,” and a lot of lights, a creche scene. The case was Lynch v. Donnelly 465 U.S. 668.


What? Can’t you see the creche? I’m sure it’s tucked in there somewhere.

A majority of the court held that the creche was reasonably included as part of the historical roots of the holiday, which it acknowledged had secular aspects as well and has always been acknowledged and accommodated by our governments. It therefore did not violate the Establishment Clause, the part of the First Amendment of the Constitution that says “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion.”

My rant is not actually about the majority decision. It was reasonable and made sense.

My rant is about Justice Brennan’s dissent, in which he, in the name of defending those in the non-Christian (or non-creche-as-symbol) religious minority from the horrors of being subjected to a government-sponsored religious display, renders the beliefs and symbols of my own religion, as inherited from it into the Christian tradition and hence into our modern holiday celebrations, utterly invisible.

He described “wreaths, garlands or Santa Claus figures” as well as “reindeer and carolers” as “secular images.”

He went on to say “a nativity scene represents far more than a mere “traditional” symbol of Christmas…. to suggest, as the Court does, that such a symbol is merely “traditional” and therefor no different from Santa’s house or reindeer is not only offensive to those for whom the creche has profound significance, but insulting to those who insist for religious or personal reasons that the story of Christ is in no sense a part of “history” nor an unavoidable element of our national [“heritage”].”

So, in asserting a need for the government to exclude a certain set of symbols, he justifies it by putting those symbols on a pedestal of favor above other symbols which he in his wisdom deems less sacred.

He goes on to make a distinction between this inclusion of a creche in a holiday display from the designation of “In God We Trust” as the national motto and “under God” as part of the Pledge of Allegiance by calling them a sort of “ceremonial deism” which “have lost through rote repetition any significant religious content.”

Anyone who is not a monotheist would perhaps find reason to disagree. Their continued role in American life is much like that of the creche in the city’s display–a reflection of the historical reality of the Christian roots of the United States, our rituals, and our holidays. This was the stance taken by the Majority, and I agree with them.

In a later case, Justice Brennan similarly objects to the inclusion of a Menorah in a winter holiday display that also had a Christmas tree, thus bringing at least some Jewish symbols into the fold of “things Justice Brennan thinks worthy of being acknowledged as sacred.”

His stance seems oblivious both to the association with the sacred some people find in the holiday symbols of which he is so dismissive, as well as the objection some Christians might have of seeing them intermixed because they recognize that the tree and wreaths and lights have sacred origins not Christian in root.

I don’t like the idea of my sacred symbols being the most ubiquitous ones in a government sponsored display because they’re not worthy enough of banishment. It rubs wrong. It makes me feel not just in a minority, but utterly invisible.

Justice O’Connor’s approach, followed in later cases, was of the government having a duty under the Establishment Clause to avoid the appearance of endorsement of one sect or faith at the expense of others. This leaves room for multi-faith/multi-cultural displays and is, in my opinion as well as the majority of the Court’s, far more sound.

It also doesn’t require any branch of government to analyze what is sacred and worthy and what isn’t.


Posted in: Law, rants