In a very interesting opinion, Freedom From Religion Foundation v. City of Warren, the Sixth Circuit ruled yesterday that the City of Warren, Michigan, could retain its yearly holiday display (which includes “a range of secular and religious symbols–a lighted tree, reindeer, snowmen, a ‘Winter Welcome’ sign and a nativity scene), located in the atrium of its civic center between Thanksgiving and New Year’s, without also being compelled to display the following:

At this season of
may reason prevail.
There are no gods,
no devils, no angels,
No heaven or hell.
There is only our natural world,
Religion is but
Myth and superstition
That hardens hearts
And enslaves minds.

Placed by the Freedom From Religion Foundation
On Behalf of its State Members

Freedom From Religion Foundation

In his opinion for a unanimous panel, Judge Sutton held that (1) the display does not violate the Establishment Clause because the nativity scene is accompanied by other secular and seasonal symbols; and (2) the display is “government speech” and therefore does not violate the Freedom From Religion Foundation’s free speech rights by refusing to add its anti-religion sign.

Judge Sutton carefully grounded the court’s Establishment Clause holding in the Supreme Court’s holiday display cases–Lynch v. Donnelly and County of Allegheny v. ACLU: “If the multi-purpose, multi-symbol Pawtucket and Allegheny County displays did not offend the Establishment Clause, then neither does the Warren display. The Warren exhibit parallels the Pawtucket one and is less faith-centered than the permitted Allegheny County exhibit.”  He rejected FFRF’s claim that the city’s refusal to display the anti-religion sign demonstrated  a “lack of neutrality between the secular and the religious.” He argued that all of the symbols in the display but one were secular, offering the following interesting discussion:

Some of these symbols allegedly are rooted in pagan traditions . . . . Some are connected to the winter season.  And some embody the most commercial features of the holiday season.  But none of these secular symbols has roots in any one faith or in faith in general.  Look through the Old and New Testaments, even we suspect in their original languages, and you will not find any references to these symbols. It may be true that many of these symbols have become connected to European and American celebrations of Christmas over time, some through the happenstance of the time of year at which the holiday falls (at least in the western part of the Northern Hemisphere) and some through stories written and read over the years. But that did not suffice to invalidate the equivalent display in Lynch; it does not suffice here.

The composition of displays used to commemorate holidays and seasons, moreover, is not static. The breadth of symbols included in the Warren exhibit reflects not just the demands of the Establishment Clause but also the demands of democracy in an increasingly pluralistic country. That presumably is why some cities no longer have such displays, why others have made a point of featuring symbols connected to other faiths (Warren had a Ramadan sign one year) and why a city like Warren would include words conspicuously ungrounded in any faith (“Winter Welcome”). Even the most faith-inspired phrases have taken on secular connotations over time. When one neighbor greets another in mid-December with “Happy Holidays,” it is the rare person who hears “Happy Holy Days.” See Webster’s New International Dictionary 1188 (2d ed. 1950).  What was once the most religious of invocations has become one of the most faith neutral, even secular. One indeed can fairly wonder who has co-opted whom over time with these displays and words. But that is a matter for another day. The key lesson of Lynch and Allegheny County is that a city does not run afoul of the Establishment Clause by including a creche in a holiday display that contains secular and religious symbols.  Warren readily meets that test.

Judge Sutton also rejected FFRF’s claim that certain isolated remarks in a letter written by the Mayor of Warren was proof of the City’s non-neutrality.  And then he said this about a strict separationist approach to the Establishment Clause:

A strict separationist perspective might suggest that the Mayor got carried away when he said that “our country was founded upon basic religious beliefs” and added a few other like-minded sentiments. Id. But the Establishment Clause does not demand strict separation between church and state in governmental words and deeds, even if that were somehow possible. The Mayor indeed could have been more forceful on the point and quoted the Supreme Court in the process: “We are a religious people whose institutions presuppose a Supreme Being.” Zorach v. Clauson, 343 U.S. 306, 313 (1952). If the Court may say this about American government and if Congress may enact a law devoted to spiritual matters and called the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, all without violating the Establishment Clause, see Wilkinson v. Cutter, 544 U.S. 709, 712–14 (2005), surely the Clause does not stand in the way of the City’s winter solstice-free display and the Mayor’s explanation for it.

It may be true that the Mayor misapprehended the Religion Clauses when he implied that atheists receive no protection from them by saying that the Foundation’s “non-religion” was “not a recognized religion.” In this respect, the Mayor, apparently untrained as a lawyer, may not have missed his calling. The Religion Clauses, it turns out, do protect the religious and nonreligious. Wallace v. Jaffree, 472 U.S. 38, 52–54 (1985). But this defense of his actions, premised on a misreading of precedent, does not transform his actions or the City’s display into an establishment.

2 thoughts on “Sixth Circuit Dismisses Anti-Religion Sign Suit

  1. Probably does not add much to current caselaw other than the proposition that a mayor’s ill-chosen and dimwitted words are not per se evidence of an unconstitutional purpose on the part of the city. Summum and the like also provided the court with ample cover to dispense with this.

  2. Hi, Matt. Summum may have been the basis of the court’s government speech discussion, but I disagree that the decision is not an interesting and possibly even an important one for Establishment Clause purposes. The Supreme Court’s last religious display case now dates back nearly 25 years. As in so many areas of constitutional law, the action is in the Courts of Appeals as well as the District Courts, though one would not know it from the lack of attention these courts typically receive.

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