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Separation of church and state:

Municipalities' use of religious displays

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Religious displays by municipalities:

There are two main principles involved here:


Balance of religious and secular symbols: Senior courts have repeatedly ruled that one or more religious symbols, such as the Ten Commandments, cross, menorah, nativity scene,  pentacle, etc. cannot be constitutionally displayed by themselves on public property. To do so would be to violate the principle of separation of church and state because they would be promote:

  • Religion as superior to secularism, and/or
  • One religion or faith tradition as superior to another.

However, one or more religious symbols may appear in a cultural display if it includes both religious and secular symbols.

American Atheists commented, with some apparent sarcasm:

"So, for governments and religious groups wishing to erect sectarian displays on public property during the holiday, the guidelines require 'secularizing' any sacred objects. Baby Jesus or other religious icons need help from Santa if they are to be kept in the public square." 1

bullet Equal access for all religions: "In general, the courts have allowed either all religions or none to be practiced on public property. Once Christmas, Hanukkah or other religious holiday displays are allowed in city halls and town squares, all religions must be afforded similar access."

Hopefully, this simple principle will eventually be understood by all, so future court battles will be unnecessary.

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Some recent court decisions:

bullet 1984 - Pawtucket, RI: (Lynch v. Donnelly) The court ruled that the city did not violate the separation of church and state when it included a nativity scene among a number of other decorations (plastic reindeer, candy canes, a wishing well, a Jewish menorah) displayed in a public park.

bullet 1989 - Pittsburgh PA: (Allegheny County v. ACLU Greater Pittsburgh Chapter) The court prohibited the display of a nativity scene which stood alone inside a county courthouse.

bullet 1997 - Township of Wall, NJ: The U.S. Supreme Court let a ruling by the Third Circuit Court of Appeals stand. They decided that a display showing a Jewish menorah and a Christian nativity scene was unconstitutional. Township officials later converted the exhibition into a cultural display by adding a Santa Claus, reindeer and Frosty the Snowman. 3

bullet 1998 - Syracuse NY: The court allowed the city to retain its nativity scene in a public park along with a number of other decorations - a menorah and non-religious symbols. 4


1999 - Jersey City, NJ: The Third Circuit Court of Appeals found that a religious display with a menorah, manger scene and Christmas tree was unconstitutional. The religious display was later modified by adding symbols of Kwanzaa -- a traditional African celebration -- Santa Claus, Frosty the Snowman, a sleigh, and a sign stating that the purpose for the display was to celebrate "cultural and ethnic diversity." It was then found to be constitutional. 3


2005: The "three reindeer rule:" The  Alliance Defense Fund (ADF), a fundamentalist Christian legal group, refered to "Three Reindeer Rule." It states that in order to convert an unconstitutional religious display into a constitutional cultural display, a municipality must  include a certain of secular objects or symbols in close enough proximity. They state: "Although the overall display must not convey a message endorsing a particular religion's view, Christmas displays are not banned as some people believe.  Simply put, the courts ask, 'Is the municipality celebrating the holiday or promoting religion'?" 5


2005: Mount Soledad cross La Lolla, CA: On 2005-MAR-08, after sixteen years of conflict, San Diego City Council voted 5 to 3 to reject a plan to retain a cross which has stood at the top of Mount Soledad in La Jolla, CA since 1913. In its present form, it is a massive concrete structure that is 43 feet tall, including the base. The cross is surrounded by 2,700 plaques dedicated to individual war veterans in six concentric rings. A federal judge has repeatedly ordered that the cross, which had been built on land owned by the city, be removed. The city had tried unsuccessfully on a number of occasions to sell the land to some person or group.

Two Republican representatives, Randy Cunningham and Duncan Hunter, inserted an amendment to a federal spending bill in 2003 which would have had the land taken over by the National Park Service. But City Attorney Michael Aguirre issued a legal opinion that donating the land to the federal government for a religious purpose would be a violation of both California's constitution and the federal constitution. Several local churches have offered to have the cross relocated to their property. One is located within 1000 feet of the cross' present location.

Jimmy Valentine, producer for the The Roger Hedgecock Show on KOGO Radio in San Diego, said:

"We need you to help us editorially, rally those who get your material, spread the word that a stand is being taken here in San Diego to 'Save A Cross.'... We'd like folks to put crosses in their yards in solidarity with us all across the nation. We need to create a ruckus. We will chain our selves to the Cross to prevent it from being taken down. We already have volunteers signing up to be chained to the Cross in shifts....The world needs to know that we are taking this stand...we will not relinquish our CROSS." 6

There is, of course, no need to relinquish the cross or take it down. It need only be moved to another location off of city land.

On 2011-JAN-05, the arguments, which had underway for over two decades, continued when Judge M. Margaret McKeown of the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that the cross: "... sends a strong message of endorsement and exclusion." It represents an unconstitutional

"endorsement of religion. ... [It] primarily conveys a message of government endorsement of religion that violates the Establishment Clause. This result does not mean that the memorial could not be modified to pass constitutional muster, nor does it mean that no cross can be part of this veterans’ memorial." 8,9

Judge McKeown also wrote:

"Overall, a reasonable observer viewing the Memorial would be confronted with an initial dedication for religious purposes, its long history of religious use, widespread public recognition of the Cross as a Christian symbol, and the history of religious discrimination in La Jolla." 10

The Court of appeals did not order the removal of the cross as requested by the Jewish War Veterans, other plaintiffs, and the American Civil Liberties Union.

During 2012-FEB, the Liberty Institute, a fundamentalist Christian legal defense group, appealed the case to the U.S. Supreme Court. Om MAR-14, the U.S. Solicitor General joined the appeal. However, the Supreme Court decided to not accept the appeal. The decision of the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals stands: the cross is unconstitutional. 10

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An exception allowing a single religious symbol in isolation:

bullet Grand Rapids MI: Calder Plaza, a municipally owned facility in Grand Rapids, MI, has allowed a Jewish symbol, a menorah, to be displayed every year from 1984 to the present time. This practice was challenged in court as an unconstitutional state endorsement of religion. The Federal appeals court ruled that the menorah does not violate the 1st Amendment because the plaza is a public forum that provides equal access to all groups. Thus, all groups that celebrate a seasonal festival near the winter solstice (Baha'i Faith, Buddhism, Christianity, Hinduism, Native Americans, Judaism, Sikhism, Wicca, other Neopagan religions, Atheists, secular groups, spiritual groups, etc.) are equally free to display their religious symbols on the plaza.

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Two conflicts handled outside the court system:

bullet Grand Haven MI: The city council had raised a Christian cross ever since 1964, during the playing of "God Bless America" at the end of the city-sponsored Musical Fountain show on each 4th of July. In 1997, a visitor from Chicago complained; in 1998, a Grand Haven family protested. City Manager Ryan Cotton asked the city's Musical Fountain committee to stop raising the cross on future July 4 shows. The committee referred the issue back to city council and asked for a recommendation. City attorney, Scott Smith, indicated that the raising of the cross appeared to be unconstitutional. One option would be to raise a display which included multiple religious symbols, each given equal prominence. This might include almost 30 symbols and was seen as impractical. Besides, it would probably be unconstitutional because it would imply the superiority of religion over secularism. The city received hundreds of letters. Reactions were divided:
bullet Some city officials said that the raising of a cross excludes non-Christians from participating fully in the July 4 celebration.

bullet Mayor Gail Ringelberg said that "Everyone is entitled to raise symbols on their personal, private property. But this is city property and a city-sponsored event."

bullet Councilman Edward Lystra said: "This is something a lot more fundamental about our community. It's about dignity and respect for everyone in this community and the people who come into this community...Several sincere Christians are deeply offended by the cross on the Fourth of July. They think it doesn't belong there."

bullet Resident Leonard D'Ambrosio commented: "We're afraid of offending a few people upset by the cross but we're not afraid of offending almighty God. Who's more important?"

bullet Resident Robert Van Hoef said: "The cross says that we are a community established on Judeo-Christian values, which really are quite simple. Those values require residents to have a measure of self-discipline and a measure of respect for others. These same values are implicit in the Constitution. The cross doesn't ask people to become Christian. It simply declares where this community stands and it shows what has been important for this community."

The city decided that the cross will no longer be raised at the end of the show. 7

bullet Somerset MA: The town had displayed crèches for nearly six decades on public property in front of the Town Hall. Also, a menorah, representing the Jewish faith, and a giant Santa Claus, affectionately known locally as "Santazilla," were displayed at the Police/Fire headquarters. In 1997, Gil Amancio, state director of American Atheists, challenged this policy in court as an apparent violation of church and state. The town responded by attempting to diversify the Christian display with the relocation of Santazilla and the menorah to the Town Hall. Amancio, the American Civil Liberties Union and the town settled out of court. The agreement called for the nativity display to be augmented with a "Seasons Greetings" signs, and secular holiday symbols, including plastic reindeer, lights, a Christmas tree along with Santazilla. Some local religious leaders were not happy; they wanted the nativity scene to be shown by itself.

A letter from a religious group commented that "In our region, there are a variety of groups, witches, Devil Worshippers and representatives of many other religious beliefs. We fear that the crèche and the menorah would be compromised even more should other groups seek to have their symbols included." Their worst nightmares seems to be coming true. Amancio prepared a sign that will read "Happy Winter Solstice from American Atheists." Pictures of the display as of early 1999-DEC are at:

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References used:

The following information sources were used to prepare and update the above essay. The hyperlinks are not necessarily still active today.

  1. "Clergy distressed over Mass. display mixing Santa, Nativity; fears of Witches, 'Devil Worshippers' raised," American Atheists,
  2. Clarence Page, "Bewitching logic: All religions or none should be tolerated on military bases," Salt Lake Tribune, Salt Lake City, UT, 1999-JUN-17. See:
  3. "Bush picks hardliner for Scotus..." AANews, American Atheists's newsletter, 2005-NOV-05.
  4. "Atheist looking for answers on nativity scene," Akron Beacon Journal, Akron OH. Online at:
  5. "More than 800 attorneys nationwide ready to combat attempts to censor Christmas," Alliance Defense fund, 2005-NOV-02, at:
  6. Michael Ireland, "San Diego to move giant cross built as memorial to servicemen and women. City Council Votes To End Suit Over Religious Symbol; Radio Station Signs Up Protesters To Chain Themselves To Save The Monument," Assist News Service, 2005-MAR-12, at:
  7. Anne Hamming, "Council halts raising of cross on Fourth of July," The Muskegon Chronicle, 1999-JUN-15.
  8. Tony Perry and Nardine Saad, "Cross on public land in San Diego is unconstitutional, federal court rules," Los Angeles Times, 2011-JAN-05, at:
  9. "ladyimpactohio," "Liberal 9th circuit court takes aim at Mount Soledad Veterans Memorial Cross," RedState, 2011-JAN-07, at:
  10. "Mount Soledad cross controversy," Wikipedia, as on 2012-JUN-27, at:

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Copyright © 1998 to 2012 by Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance
Original publishing date: 1998-AUG-5
Latest update: 2012-JUN-27
Author: B.A. Robinson
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