In Lynch v. Donnelly from 1984, the Court was asked to consider if the First Amendment prohibited a municipality from including a creche, or Nativity scene, in its annual Christmas display. The holiday display in Pawtucket, Rhode Island, included the crèche along with other secular symbols such as a plastic reindeer, a Santa Claus house and a Christmas tree.
Chief Justice Warren Burger allowed the crèche to stay at the exhibit.
“If the presence of the creche in this display violates the Establishment Clause, a host of other forms of taking official note of Christmas, and of our religious heritage, are equally offensive to the Constitution,” Burger said. “We are satisfied that the city has a secular purpose for including the creche, that the city has not impermissibly advanced religion, and that including the creche does not create excessive entanglement between religion and government.”
Court observers at the time saw the presence of the reindeer as broadening the purpose of the display.
A second holiday-related decision in 1989 clarified the Court’s position on crèches. In County of Allegheny v. American Civil Liberties Unionthe Court said in a 5-4 decision that of two public-sponsored holiday displays in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, only one was permissible.
Inside a courthouse the county had set up a crèche with a banner that read “Glory to God for the birth of Jesus Christ.” It omitted a plastic reindeer, a Christmas tree or a Menorah. The Justices objected to that display.
A second display outside the Allegheny County courthouse featured a Menorah, a Christmas tree and a sign honoring Liberty. “We agree that the creche display has that unconstitutional effect, but reverse the Court of Appeals’ judgment regarding the menorah display,” said Justice Harry Blackmun.