Religious Holiday Displays on Public Property: Are they Constitutional?
The First Amendment - the one that guarantees citizens can speak their minds and express their beliefs - prohibits the government from favoring one religion over others.
Many American colonists escaped religious persecution in Europe. The Founders wanted to make sure that people in America don't feel second-class because they don't have the right religion.
That's what the First Amendment's Establishment Clause is about.
What about positive religious expression?
The holiday season is a time of people expressing religious celebration. That includes the people in our local governments who decide how the government will express holiday cheer. We've all seen bright Seasons Greetings on government property.
Despite the cheery intentions of the government, sometimes people who don't celebrate the message of choice have argued the religious holiday display makes them feel left out.
The Supreme Court has defined which government expressions are secular enough to be acceptable, and which ones send the message that the government is endorsing a particular religion. Here is our infographic on the Supreme Court cases of the last few decades.
- From the National Constitution Center: The Supreme Court's thoughts on reindeer and Christmas displays (2013)
- From Pew Research Center: Religious Displays and the Courts (2007)
Related Recent Case
The Establishment Clause question in the Travel Ban Case is another case of the government getting involved with religion. In the Travel Ban Case, the plaintiffs argued the government policy was disfavoring Islam.
FYI this case was never argued because it was declared unnecessary in light of the ban's time running out and that another version of the travel ban went into effect.