A federal appeals court ruled that the placement of a nativity scene in the main lobby of a county courthouse building violated the constitutional prohibition of any "establishment of a religion."
Annually, since 1981, the county had permitted the display of the nativity scene, which consisted of traditional figures ranging in height from 3 to 15 inches, including a wooden stable with the infant Jesus, the Virgin Mary, Joseph, the three wise men, shepherds, various animals, and an angel holding a banner reading "Gloria in Excelsis Deo" (Glory to God in the Highest). The display was provided by the Holy Name Society of the Diocese of Pittsburgh, and included a sign reading "this display donated by the Holy Name Society."
Such a practice, concluded the court, violated the constitution's ban on an establishment of a religion, since the display was located "in a public building devoted to core functions of government" and was "placed at a prominent site … where visitors would see it." The court rejected the applicability of a 1984 decision of the United States Supreme Court upholding the constitutionality of a nativity scene, since (unlike the present case) the Supreme Court's ruling had involved a display "subsumed in a larger display of nonreligious items."
The appeals court emphasized that there would be no objection to displaying religious objects (including nativity scenes) in a museum or in a history course. A dissenting judge argued that the display posed "no threat to religious freedom," and warned that the court's suppression "forebodes ominous consequences." ACLU v. Allegheny County, 842 F.2d 655 (3rd Cir. 1988)