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Friday, March 8, 2013

City's Holiday Display Did Not Violate First Amendment

In Freedom from Religion Foundation, Inc. v. City of Warren, the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals dismissed the plaintiff's constitutional challenge to the City's annual holiday display in its civic center. The Foundation had requested that the City remove its holiday display from the atrium of the civic center that included both secular and religious symbols (lighted tree, reindeer, snowmen, and a nativity scene, among other displays). The City refused.  The Foundation then asked the City to include its "Winter Solstice" sign in the display that included language such as "religion is but a myth" and that "there is no god," among other statements. When the City refused to add the Foundation's sign to its display, the Foundation sued, claiming that the City's violated the establishment and free speech clauses of the First and Fourteenth Amendments.  The district court ruled in favor of the City, and the Foundation appealed.
On appeal, the Sixth Circuit first determined that the nativity scene did not amount to an establishment of religion or an impermissible endorsement of religion.  The Court cited the cases of Lynch v. Donnelly and County of Alegheny v. ACLU in which the U.S. Supreme Court had developed a framework for analyzing whether holiday displays would violate the establishment clause of the First Amendment, finding that multi-purpose, multi-symbol holiday displays did not offend the establishment clause.  Based on these cases, the Court similarly held that Warren's holiday display was similarly multi-symbol in nature and constitutional. 
Second, the Court rejected the Foundation's argument that the City was impermissibly advancing religion based on the Mayor's letter denying permission to include the Foundation's sign within the City's holiday display.  The Court held that the City did not violate the Foundation's free speech protections when it denied permission to install the Winter Solstice sign because the display was government speech and the First Amendment does not prohibit a government from making content or viewpoint distinctions for its own speech. The First Amendment also does not require strict neutrality, so long as the City did not violate the establishment clause or other constitutional guarantees.  Moreover, the City's civic center atrium has limited floor space, and the City had the right to control that space.
Post Authored by Julie Tappendorf, Ancel Glink


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