The Christ Child Goes to Court

The Christ Child Goes to Court

Wayne R. Swanson
Copyright Date: 1990
Published by: Temple University Press
Pages: 284
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  • Book Info
    The Christ Child Goes to Court
    Book Description:

    In December 1981, when the American Civil Liberties Union challenged the Nativity scene in the Christmas display put on by the city of Pawtucket, Rhode Island, an emotional controversy erupted. Two federal courts disallowed the crèche because its religious impact in the taxpayer-supported display overstepped the constitutional boundary between church and state. In March 1984, the United States Supreme Court by a 5-4 vote in Lynch V. Donnelly overruled the lower courts, deciding that in the predominantly secular context of Pawtucket's display, the purpose and effect of the Nativity scene was not to promote religion, but only to acknowledge the spirit of the holiday season.The Christ Child Goes to Courttraces the judicial history of a case that lasted more than two years and explores its implications for future issues concerning the relationship between religion and government.

    Wayne R. Swanson describes how this compelling constitutional issue polarized public opinion in Rhode Island and generated "unimaginable vilification" of the Roman Catholic judge who first ordered the crèche removed. He reports the reactions of local citizens, which echoed the national debate on this issue. By carefully documenting the case's trek through the judiciary, Swanson illustrates the workings of the judicial process in the United States, the political nature of the courts, and how their interpretation of the Constitution helps to shape the development of public policy.

    An important conclusion of this critical examination of the courts' approach to a controversial church-state question is that judicial decisions are usually interim in nature and often lead to imperfect solutions.Lynch V. Donnellydid not solve the problems posed by government-supported Nativity scenes or other religious symbols. The controversy lives on and the courts continue to struggle with one of the most difficult First Amendment problems.

    eISBN: 978-1-4399-0382-7
    Subjects: Political Science

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
    (pp. ix-2)
    (pp. 3-10)

    The judiciary in the united states performs an indispensable role in resolving the nation’s most difficult problems. History clearly shows that the major questions that claim a position on our political agenda invariably make it to the courts’ dockets. This has been especially true during the last half-century, when an era of “big government” spawned by Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal raised the stakes in American politics. Conflicts over who should benefit from government’s increasing generosity invited disputes that go to the heart of the Constitution. As questions relating to the appropriate balance between majority rule and minority rights became involved...

    (pp. 11-42)

    The united states had known better times than December 1980. Anxieties ran high. The holiday spirit was not all bright lights and tinsel. The economy was out of control. Numbers told the story. Unemployment, interest rates, and inflation were all in double digits. OPEC had become a symbol of anger and frustration as gasoline and heating oil costs soared over a dollar a gallon. Daily reminders by the media that fifty-three American hostages in Iran were in their fourteenth month of captivity had an hypnotizing and psychologically draining effect. Jimmy Carter was about to vacate the White House. Ronald Reagan...

  6. II ROUND ONE: The District Court Decides
    (pp. 43-84)

    The u.s. constitution places courts and judges in a unique position in the political system and makes special demands upon the way they function. The judiciary is the most independent of the three branches of government. Federal judges are appointed and hold their offices for life, barring misconduct. Without the electoral concerns of the president and members of Congress, a judge is positioned to exercise the power of judicial review mostly free of the influences that affect political decisions made outside the courtroom. In the judicial arena minority rights are as important as majority rule. Long-term implications of policy can...

  7. III ROUND TWO: The Court of Appeals
    (pp. 85-100)

    Judges are frequently asked to rule on aspects of constitutionallaw that most citizens do not appreciate or understand. This is particularly true with issues of individual rights and civil liberties. Although most Americans support Bill of Rights guarantees in the abstract, their level of tolerance for minority rights noticeably decreases when specific cases are applied to general constitutional principles.

    Judge Pettine knew that his Nativity ruling would not be a popular one. The decision came just two weeks before the creche was scheduled to be reinstalled in Hodgson Park for the 1981 Christmas season. The intensity of the commitment of...

  8. IV A FINAL HEARING: The Supreme Court
    (pp. 101-154)

    A visitor to the supreme court cannot mistake the influence of John Marshall upon American constitutional law. On entering the building one is immediately drawn to the largerthan-life statue of our third chief justice, which dominates the main lobby. Behind him, etched in marble, are the brightly illuminated words which begin this chapter. If architecture, inscriptions, portraits, statues, and the majesty of the “Marble Palace” are indicative of the respect in which the Supreme Court is held and the influence it exerts on the American political system today, no one would challenge Marshall’s bold claim of power for the judiciary....

    (pp. 155-184)

    When the supreme court hands down a decision, an important stage in the process by which the political system passes judgment on issues of constitutional law is concluded. For the parties in the Nativity scene dispute the Court ruling created a clear winner and loser. Pawtucket, by prevailing in the case, regained the right to erect its traditional Christmas display which included the creche. The ACLU failed in its effort to persuade the Court that the city’s sponsorship of the manger scene was in violation of the Establishment Clause.

    A Supreme Court victory, however, should not be the cause for...

    (pp. 185-206)

    It is difficult to find anyone who is willing to come to the defense of the Supreme Court’s record on questions of establishment of religion. The task is not an easy one. The variety of religious views that are represented in the United States and the sensitive nature of church–state relationships place an unusually heavy burden on the courts. The justices themselves are aware that their efforts have failed to produce agreement on a set of principles to guide their consideration of the difficult constitutional questions raised by the “no establishment” provision.

    Especially troublesome about recent Court decisions is...

  11. APPENDIX I LYNCH v. DONNELLY: Case Chronology
    (pp. 207-210)
    (pp. 211-216)
  13. APPENDIX III TABLE OF CASES: Supreme Court Establishment Decisions (1947–1988)
    (pp. 217-218)
  14. NOTES
    (pp. 219-228)
    (pp. 229-236)
  16. INDEX
    (pp. 237-243)