Degree Type

Honors Capstone Project

Date of Submission

Spring 5-1-2010

Capstone Advisor

Professor Thomas M. Keck

Honors Reader

Professor Jeffrey Stonecash

Capstone Major

Political Science

Capstone College

Citizenship and Public Affairs

Audio/Visual Component


Capstone Prize Winner


Won Capstone Funding


Honors Categories

Social Sciences

Subject Categories

American Politics | Other Political Science | Political Science


Lynch v. Donnelly in 1984 and County of Allegheny v. ACLU in 1989, the only holiday themed religious display cases decided by the Court on the grounds on Establishment Clause violations, demonstrate the inadequacies of the Court’s Establishment Clause jurisprudence. The precedent set out by the Supreme Court in Lynch v. Donnelly and Allegheny v. ACLU compromise lower courts’ decision making process. Discrepancy in methods, results, and opinions threatens the credibility of the Court. This not only confuses the idea of religious freedom, but it also threatens its very core.

Lynch and Allegheny were intended to clarify Establishment Clause jurisprudence and provide a standard for interpretation for lower courts to follow. However, the Court failed to agree upon a legal doctrine that would achieve these goals. This stems from a deeper conflict over the fundamental principles underlying the Establishment Clause, which prevents the Court from providing the guidance necessary to lower court decision-making.

This study examined Circuit Court cases to determine the effect that Lynch and Allegheny had on lower courts. Compiling circuit court cases involving disputes of religious symbols displayed in the holiday context and analyzing the rulings provides a manageable case set that will accurately depict the way lower courts have responded to the Lynch and Allegheny decisions. Empirical data shows that cohesiveness within a higher court results in fewer reversals of the lower court’s decisions. Therefore, circuit courts’ rulings on religious displays lack uniformity because of the Supreme Court’s inability to provide consistent guidelines. Evaluation of Circuit Court decisions will provide an accurate representation of the problems that exist within the appellate court system.

I examined the methodology used by courts and the outcome reached. Cases that involved similar displays but resulted in different rulings or cases that employed different doctrines to come to the same ruling supported the claim that the Supreme Court has failed to produce guidelines that the lower courts can effectively apply to a wide range of cases. The 20 cases evaluated in this study were classified according to the type of display. Two categories of cases emerged: displays of a single, unattended religious symbol, such as a solitary crèche or menorah and displays with one or more symbols, such as a menorah and Christmas tree, included as part of a larger display with clearly secular symbols, such as a reindeer, candy cane, or banner.

For combined displays, the inclusion of secular objects mitigated the religious tones of the message perceived by the reasonable observer and were almost always allowed. For unattended displays, the judges are not equipped with a clear rule and case outcomes were inconsistent. The overarching issue still remains that the Court needs to provide better guidance for lower courts.

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Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 License.



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