County of Allegheny v. American Civil Liberties Union, Greater Pittsburgh Chapter

PETITIONER: County of Allegheny
RESPONDENT: American Civil Liberties Union, Greater Pittsburgh Chapter
LOCATION: Checker Gasoline Station

DOCKET NO.: 87-2050
DECIDED BY: Rehnquist Court (1988-1990)
LOWER COURT: United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit

CITATION: 492 US 573 (1989)
ARGUED: Feb 22, 1989
DECIDED: Jul 02, 1989

Nathan Lewin - Argued the cause for the petitioner in No. 88-90
Peter Buscemi - Argued the cause for the petitioners in Nos. 87-2050 and 88-96
Roslyn M. Litman - Argued the cause for the respondents

Facts of the case

Two public-sponsored holiday displays in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, were challenged by the American Civil Liberties Union. The first display involved a Christian nativity scene inside the Allegheny County Courthouse. The second display was a large Chanukah menorah, erected each year by the Chabad Jewish organization, outside the City-County building. The ACLU claimed the displays constituted state endorsement of religion. This case was decided together with Chabad v. ACLU and City of Pittsburgh v. ACLU of Greater Pittsburgh.


Did the public displays violate the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment?

Media for County of Allegheny v. American Civil Liberties Union, Greater Pittsburgh Chapter

Audio Transcription for Oral Argument - February 22, 1989 in County of Allegheny v. American Civil Liberties Union, Greater Pittsburgh Chapter

William H. Rehnquist:

We'll hear argument now in No. 87-2050, County of Allegheny v. American Civil Liberties Union and related cases.

Mr. Buscemi, you may proceed whenever you're ready.

Peter Buscemi:

Thank you.

Mr. Chief Justice, and may it please the Court:

Five years ago this Court decided a case called Lynch against Donnelly.

In that case the Court upheld a Christmas display in Pawtucket, Rhode Island against a First Amendment challenge.

The display contained a rather large nativity scene with figures as big as five-feet tall.

The City of Pawtucket owned the display, erected it, and maintained it each year as part of a display in the vicinity of the City Hall and a private park near the downtown shopping center.

Harry A. Blackmun:

So, it was on private property?

Peter Buscemi:

Yes, Your Honor.

The mayor himself participated in the lighting of the display each year, and a ceremony to which people were invited... the public was invited.

And the city's involvement in the display was never challenged.

Indeed, that was the reason that the case came before this Court in the first place.

Had there been no city involvement, of course, there would have been no constitutional issue presented in Lynch at all.

The Court rejected the Establishment Clause challenge in Lynch and held that the display did not compel or seek to compel adherence to any religious belief and did not violate the Establishment Clause.

The way in which the Court put the issue to be decided in Lynch is significant for today's case.

The Court said that the issue for decision in Lynch was whether the Establishment Clause prohibits a municipality from including a creche or nativity scene in its annual Christmas display.

That is how the Court began its opinion.

In the five years since Lynch was decided, three federal courts of appeals have considered Establishment Clause challenges to Christmas displays in various cities around the country, including Pittsburgh, Chicago, and Birmingham, Michigan.

Harry A. Blackmun:

And we had a Scarsdale, New York case.

Peter Buscemi:

Yes, Your Honor.

That was affirmed by an equally divided court.

And, in any event, the Scarsdale case was slightly different, as you may remember, because it involved a request by a group to put a display in a park.

It was not a city display that was challenged after it was erected, as was the case in the Chicago case, the Birmingham case, and the case that's here today, the Pittsburgh case.

This case is here on certiorari to the Third Circuit and it involves displays in the Allegheny County Courthouse and in the City-County Building which is directly across the street from the Allegheny County Courthouse in downtown Pittsburgh.

The Allegheny County Courthouse display consists of a nativity scene which is surrounded by Christmas trees, poinsettia plants, wreaths on the windows behind the staircase, and is used as the site for a choral program that takes place throughout the Christmas season each year.

William J. Brennan, Jr.:

What was it that surrounded the creche in the Pawtucket case?

Peter Buscemi:

Well, the creche in the Pawtucket case was surrounded by a variety of things, including a jumbo candy-cane, a talking wishing well, some reindeer, a Santa Claus, a sleigh and a variety of Christmas symbols.

William J. Brennan, Jr.:

And did the court find that that had some significance for the Establishment Claim?

Peter Buscemi:

Well, that's a matter of dispute in the case, Your Honor.