The Establishment Clause of the First Amendment says “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion.” But in practice, not everyone agrees on what abiding by that clause means in real-life situations. For instance, can a courthouse or a public park feature a nativity scene?
According to the Supreme Court, maybe not—or at least not unless it includes a menorah and a plastic reindeer, too. In the 1984 case of Lynch v. Donnelly, the court established a precedent that became known as the “reindeer rule," a legal standard that has governed public displays of holiday cheer ever since.
The case hinged on a Rhode Island display that was owned by the city of Pawtucket but was located in a park owned by a nonprofit organization. The annual display, which dated back 40 years, included a nativity scene (also known as a creche or crèche) in addition to other Christmastime symbols like reindeer pulling Santa’s sleigh, a Christmas tree, and a “seasons greetings” banner. The justices ruled in favor of the nativity scene, arguing that there was a secular argument to be made about including the religious reference:
The display is sponsored by the city to celebrate the Holiday recognized by Congress and national tradition and to depict the origins of that Holiday; these are legitimate secular purposes. Whatever benefit to one faith or religion or to all religions inclusion of the creche in the display effects, is indirect, remote, and incidental, and is no more an advancement or endorsement of religion than the congressional and executive recognition of the origins of Christmas, or the exhibition of religious paintings in governmentally supported museums.
In the case, Justice Sandra Day O’Connor put forth a legal rule of thumb called the “endorsement test,” writing that governments can run afoul of the Establishment Clause by appearing to endorse a specific religion or a belief, rather than being inclusive of a variety of beliefs. “Endorsement sends a message to nonadherents that they are outsiders, not full members of the political community, and an accompanying message to adherents that they are insiders, favored members of the political community,” O'Connor explained.
According to the National Constitution Center, “Court observers at the time saw the presence of the reindeer as broadening the purpose of the display.” And so the reindeer rule was born.
Then, a 1989 Supreme Court ruling in reference to two holiday displays inside and outside the Allegheny County courthouse in Pittsburgh made this standard even more clear. A nativity scene inside the courthouse that prominently displayed a banner that read, in Latin, “Glory to God for the birth of Jesus Christ,” with no secular objects on display, was ruled unconstitutional. Meanwhile, a display outside the courthouse with a menorah, a Christmas tree, and a sign that declared the city’s “salute to liberty,” as the case ruling puts it, was allowed to stay. With the overtly Christian indoor display, nothing counteracted the government endorsement of “a patently Christian message.”
As Justice Harry Blackmun wrote in his opinion, “Although the government may acknowledge Christmas as a cultural phenomenon, it may not observe it as a Christian holy day by suggesting that people praise God for the birth of Jesus,” while the menorah display combined “with a Christmas tree and a sign saluting liberty does not impermissibly endorse both the Christian and Jewish faiths, but simply recognizes that both Christmas and Chanukah are part of the same winter-holiday season, which has attained a secular status in our society. The widely accepted view of the Christmas tree as the preeminent secular symbol of the Christmas season emphasizes this point.” This ruling only applies to government property and government sponsored displays, though, which is why it's completely fine for private entities like churches to erect public displays of nativity scenes on their property.
Though the reindeer rule seems pretty clear, it hasn’t stopped towns from testing the boundaries of the court’s ruling over the decades since it was established.
In 2014, Cherokee County, Texas, for instance, got into a spat with the American Humanist Association over the constitutionality of a nativity scene in front of the county courthouse. The state attorney general publicly supported the county, and there was no forced removal of the display. That same year, similar controversies took place in towns in Virginia and Arkansas. Some cities have groups like the Thomas More Society and the American Nativity Scene Committee, which work to get Christian displays erected in public places across the country, to thank for their nativity scenes. The former calls nativity scenes “classic free speech.”
But some towns have proven to be a little more inclusive of other holiday decor—or at least wary of litigation. The Florida Capitol building in Tallahassee, for instance, has approved holiday displays that include not just nativity scenes, but privately funded decorative contributions from the Satanic Temple, Seinfeld fans (a Festivus pole), and Pastafarian followers of the Flying Spaghetti Monster.
But the U.S. remains a very Christian country, despite its longstanding religious freedom laws, and according to a 2014 Pew Research Center survey, 44 percent of American adults think Christian symbols are OK to display on government property, even in the absence of symbols from other faiths. It should be noted that a Pew survey that year on religion found that 71 percent of Americans identified as Christians, though the percentages of residents practicing other faiths or identifying as atheists has been rising. Still, that doesn’t mean that nativity scenes get total respect in America. Plenty of baby Jesuses get swiped out of their mangers every year.