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Court To Decide On Christmas Displays at Government Buildings in Pittsburgh

October 3, 1988

WASHINGTON (AP) _ The Supreme Court today agreed to decide whether displays of a Christmas nativity scene and a menorah, symbolizing the Jewish holiday of Chanukah, should be allowed at two government buildings in Pittsburgh.

The justices said they will review a ruling that each display violated the constitutionally required separation of church and state.

The American Civil Liberties Union and several Pittsburgh residents challenged the displays in a 1986 lawsuit.

Since 1981, a nativity scene or creche depicting the birth of Jesus Christ has been displayed inside the main entrance to the Allegheny County Courthouse for about six weeks during the Christmas season.

A block away, an 18-foot menorah has been displayed each year on the front steps of the City-County Building since 1982.

A federal trial judge refused to order the dismantling of the displays last Christmas. But the 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled, by a 2-1 vote last March 15, that the displays unlawfully promote religion.

″The only reasonable conclusion is that by permitting the creche and the menorah to be placed at the buildings the city and county have tacitly endorsed Christianity and Judaism and have therefore acted to advance religion,″ the appeals court ruled.

The creche is owned by the Holy Name Society, a Roman Catholic men’s group. The menorah, a nine-branched candelabrum, was donated by Chabad, a Jewish organization.

The Supreme Court in 1984 allowed communities nationwide to include nativity scenes in officially sponsored holiday displays.

In that ruling, the justices let Pawtucket, R.I., officials place a creche in a Christmas display because such decorations as Santa Claus, reindeer and snowmen also were included.

But lower courts since have treated the 1984 decision as a narrow one, and have disallowed various Christmas displays deemed too religious.

Since a 1970 Supreme Court ruling, courts have been using a three-part test to determine whether some government action violates church-state separation.

A law or governmental practice is not a violation of religious freedoms if:

-It has a secular, or non-religious purpose.

-Its primary effect neither advances nor inhibits religion.

-It does not foster ″excessive governmental entanglement″ with religion.

The 3rd Circuit court said the displays in Pittsburgh advanced religion, and therefore were unconstitutional.

In dissenting from the appeals court ruling, Judge Joseph F. Weis Jr. said, ″This aggressive ‘neutrality’ ... will lead not to accommodation but to animosity, not to tolerance of but to hostility toward, religion.″

The appeals court decision was appealed by Allegheny County, Pittsburgh and Chabad.

The cases are Allegheny County vs. ACLU, 87-2050; Chabad vs. ACLU, 88-90; and Pittsburgh vs. ACLU, 88-96.

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