What is the limit of government endorsement of religion? Well, it depends on which side of the political aisle you ask. The question this addresses runs along the lines that if taxpayer money is being spent by a governmental organization (like a town) on a religious display (like a nativity scene), is that a government endorsement of Christianity? Such an example might seem petty or even far-fetched, but, in 1989, this type of case made its way to the United States Supreme Court.
In this case, the government of Allegheny County, Pennsylvania, and the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) butted heads over a public holiday display. An 18 foot tall holiday display had been paid for by the county, and the ACLU felt that this use of taxpayer money indeed endorsed the religion this symbol portrayed.
The US Constitution does say that government shall not pass any law (or, by extension, perform any action) that could be seen as, “respecting an establishment of religion.” This fear of the Founding Parents was that they did not want to fall into the trap that English history seemed to have done by having the monarch as the head of the church. Much of English history even before the establishment of the Church of England by Henry VIII felt the impact of the tension between church and state. America sought to run away from the issues raised by the union of the two, and this phrase in the Constitution sought to address that.
Which brings us back to the lawsuit. If a taxpayer is not a member of the religion that the display shows, why should that taxpayer’s money go towards paying for that display? What if the taxpayer had no religion at all? And, perhaps primarily and most importantly, does a taxpayer funded display constitute a governmental endorsement of that religion at all? What if the display itself was not paid for with government funds, but the display was made on government property? Should my tax dollar-funded property show something from one religion over another?
The Supreme Court delivered a somewhat confusing decision. The bottom line was that part of the display was, indeed, deemed an endorsement of a religion. On the other hand, the largest part of the display in question, the 18 foot tall part, did not. First of all, the confusing ruling decided that a nativity scene was too much. The nativity scene was deemed a specific religious image (and its message wasn’t helped that a large sign that read, “Glory to God in the highest” was nearby) the court said. On the other hand, the court said that another image was merely part of the holiday season and not a specific endorsement of a religion. What was that image?
It was the 18 foot tall menorah.
Happy Hanukah, everyone.