It won't happen in time for Christmas this year, but there seems to be a good chance that the Supreme Court will soon clarify the constitutionality of putting up religious holiday symbols outside government buildings.

For a decade, the court has sent uncertain messages about religious displays - Christian or Jewish, usually - placed on the lawns, steps or walls of official structures or public parks.The last time the court issued a full-scale decision on the subject, more than five years ago, the outcome was mixed. Two combinations of votes among the justices produced these rulings:

- A Christian Nativity scene, including a message praising God for the birth of Jesus, was unconstitutional when erected in a prominent place on a government building, because no nonreligious symbols were included in the display. (The court voted 5-4 on that.)

- A Jewish menorah, a symbol of the Hanukkah holiday, was not unconstitutional in a similarly prominent place on a government structure because the menorah was next to a Christmas tree, which could be considered a nonreligious symbol. (The vote was 6-3.)

Those outcomes suggested that the court probably would insist that the government not appear to endorse a religious faith, and that the display itself be aimed at promoting more a holiday than a religion.

The court, however, left open the question of what the government could do constitutionally when it merely tolerated a religious display put up by someone else in a space that usually serves as a "public forum" - that is, a space ordinarily open to all comers, for speeches, gatherings and public events.

View Comments

That question may force the court to choose between the right of free speech for those who would speak about their faith or put up religious displays, and the constitutional rule that government and religion must remain separate.

Lower courts, which every year at this time confront a new round of challenges to religious holiday displays, have been issuing widely differing rulings on how to interpret the court's 1989 ruling.

Now, one of those lower-court rulings is being tested in an appeal that awaits the justices' attention, probably in January. It is a significant test case from Columbus, Ohio, where a federal appeals court ruled that the state must allow a private group to erect a Christian cross during the Christmas season on the lawn of the state Capitol - a display the state government strenuously opposed.

"Speakers with a religious message," the appeals court said, "are entitled to no less access to public forums than that afforded speakers whose message is . . . nonreligious. There is a crucial difference between government speech endorsing religion, which the (Constitution) forbids, and private speech about religion, which the (Constitution) protects."

Join the Conversation
Looking for comments?
Find comments in their new home! Click the buttons at the top or within the article to view them — or use the button below for quick access.