County of Allegheny v. ACLU Greater Pittsburgh Chapter (1989)

This litigation concerns the constitutionality of two holiday displays located on public property in downtown Pittsburgh. Respondents, the Greater Pittsburgh Chapter of the ACLU and seven local residents, filed suit seeking permanently to enjoin the county from displaying a Christmas crèche inside the county courthouse and the city from displaying a Hanukkah menorah next to a Christmas tree outside a county building on the grounds that the displays violated the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment.

The Supreme Court ruled that the menorah was constitutional because it was not inside an official building and, together with the tree, was intended to celebrate the holiday season. The crèche, however, was inside the county courthouse, where county business, including judicial proceedings, occurred every day, and was ruled to be a violation of the Establishment Clause because it appeared to be a government endorsement of a specific religion. The Court’s decision stated: “We have paid particularly close attention to whether the challenged governmental practice either has the purpose or effect of ‘endorsing’ religion, a concern that has long had a place in our Establishment Clause jurisprudence.”

The Court went on to say, “The Constitution mandates that the government remain secular, rather than affiliating itself with religious beliefs or institutions, precisely in order to avoid discriminating against citizens on the basis of their religious faiths.”