Lynch v. Donnelly

Following is the case brief for Lynch v. Donnelly, 465 U.S. 668 (1984)

Case Summary of Lynch v. Donnelly:

  • The City of Pawtucket has displayed a creche (Nativity scene) for the last 40 years as part of its annual Christmas display in the center of town.
  • Respondents challenged the creche display as a violation of the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment.
  • The lower courts agreed with respondents and ordered that the City could not display the creche.
  • The U.S. Supreme Court reversed, finding that the creche does not violate the Establishment Clause.  It held that the creche had a legitimate secular purpose and did not primarily advocate a certain religion.

Lynch v. Donnelly Case Brief

Statement of the Facts:

The city of Pawtucket RI, has an annual Christmas display in the city’s shopping district.  The display includes a Santa Clause house, a Christmas tree, and a “Season’s Greetings” banner.  It also includes a creche (Nativity scene), which has been part of the annual display for over 40 years.  The respondents filed suit in Federal District Court, claiming that the creche as part of the display violates the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment.

Procedural History:

  • The District Court agreed with the respondent, and it permanently enjoined the city from including the creche in the display.
  • The First Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed.
  • The U.S. Supreme Court granted certiorari.

Issue and Holding:

Does the display of a creche as part of an annual holiday display violate the Establishment Clause?  No.


The decision of the First Circuit Court of Appeals is reversed.

Rule of Law or Legal Principle Applied:

The Establishment Clause does not require an absolutist approach to any religious symbol.  Rather, the determination requires a fact-sensitive inquiry involving whether the symbol (i) has a secular purpose, (ii) is principally used to advance religion, or (iii) entangles government with religion.


The Constitution does not require a complete separation between church and state.  It mandates accommodation of all religion, and hostility towards none.  The Framers allowed for some religious symbolism in government, such as a chaplain for the First Congress or daily prayers in Congress.

Rather than an absolutist approach to the Establishment Clause, the inquiry into whether there has been an unlawful government establishment of religion involves an analysis of whether:

  1. The conduct has a secular purpose,
  2. Its principal effect is to advance religion, and
  3. It creates an excessive entanglement of government with religion.

That said, the Court has not settled on one test in this area.

Applying the above to the present case, the creche has a secular purpose, its effect is not principally to advance religion, and does not create an excessive entanglement in the context of the Christmas season.

Finally, it would be ironic to prohibit the creche when there are myriad religious symbols and songs in public places during the holidays, and when Congress and state legislatures still open public sessions with prayer.

Concurring and Dissenting Opinions:

Concurring Opinion (O’Connor):

Suggesting a clarification to the Court’s Establishment doctrine – whether the government appears to endorse a certain religion – Justice O’Connor’s approach comes to the same conclusion as the majority.

Dissenting Opinion (Brennan):

Despite the Court’s narrow decision, precedent compels that the inclusion of a life-sized display depicting the biblical description of the birth of Christ as part of an annual Christmas celebration is unconstitutional.


Lynch v. Donnelly is significant because it found a legitimate secular purpose in a symbol that is clearly of one particular religion.  More than anything else, the case shows that there is flexibility in the Court’s Establishment Clause jurisprudence.

Student Resources:

Read the Full Court Opinion

Listen to the Oral Arguments