Religious holiday displays – three wise men and a heap of legal troubles

Cost of religious victory may outweigh the benefit says legal expert

The upcoming holiday season brings with it the annual gaze upon religious displays — and the legal issues that come with them. “The Supreme Court’s approach to public religious displays under the Establishment Clause has been less than clear,” says John Inazu, JD, expert on religion and the constitution and professor of law at Washington University in St. Louis.

“Some commentators have described it as the ‘three plastic animals rule’ –a Christian nativity scene on public property passes muster if it is accompanied by a sufficient combination of Rudolph, Frosty, and their friends.”

Inazu says that future litigation will likely press against this line-drawing, but even apparent victories for religious liberty may come at a significant cost.

“In a 1989 decision upholding a Pittsburgh display of a menorah, a Christmas tree, and a salute to liberty sign, Justice Harry Blackmun reasoned that the display reflected the ‘winter holiday season, which has attained a secular status in our society’ and characterized Chanukah and Christmas as ‘winter festivals,’” he says.

“If that is the price of admission to a public holiday display, many Christians and Jews might find the costs outweigh the benefits.”