Lynch and the Lunacy of Secularized Religion
12 Nevada Law Journal (Forthcoming Summer 2012)
11 Pages Posted: 5 Sep 2011 Last revised: 9 Jun 2015
Date Written: April 9, 2012
Prepared for a symposium, this essay argues that Lynch v. Donnelly (1983) belongs in the pantheon of anti-canonically bad Supreme Court decisions. Widely viewed as a victory for conservative Christians in their long-running battle against the secularization of public life, Lynch held that a state-sponsored Christmas nativity depicting the traditional biblical account of Jesus’s birth did not violate the Establishment Clause because it was surrounded by candy canes, Santa Clause, reindeer, and other secular symbols of the Christmas holiday.
The essay argues that the Lynch majority failed to explain why this was not a violation of the Establishment Clause, and also failed to articulate any principle that could be applied with even modest predictability in subsequent religious symbol cases, resulting in a line of decisions whose unifying rationale remains obscure.
Worst of all, Lynch and its progeny suggest that government may appropriate religious symbols for its own uses only if the context in which the symbol is displayed empties it of contemporary religious significance. Lynch is thus a pyrrhic victory for religious conservatives, an ironic dismissal of the relevance of faith to American public life that permits the government to use religious symbols only if it also communicates that they are not religiously meaningful.
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