In December 1981, when the American Civil Liberties Union challenged the Nativity scene in the Christmas display put on by the city of Pawtucket, Rhode Island, an emotional controversy erupted. Two federal courts disallowed the crèche because its religious impact in the taxpayer-supported display overstepped the constitutional boundary between church and state. In March 1984, the United States Supreme Court by a 5-4 vote in Lynch V. Donnelly overruled the lower courts, deciding that in the predominantly secular context of Pawtucket’s display, the purpose and effect of the Nativity scene was not to promote religion, but only to acknowledge the spirit of the holiday season. The Christ Child Goes to Court traces the judicial history of a case that lasted more than two years and explores its implications for future issues concerning the relationship between religion and government.
Wayne R. Swanson describes how this compelling constitutional issue polarized public opinion in Rhode Island and generated "unimaginable vilification" of the Roman Catholic judge who first ordered the crèche removed. He reports the reactions of local citizens, which echoed the national debate on this issue. By carefully documenting the case’s trek through the judiciary, Swanson illustrates the workings of the judicial process in the United States, the political nature of the courts, and how their interpretation of the Constitution helps to shape the development of public policy.
An important conclusion of this critical examination of the courts’ approach to a controversial church-state question is that judicial decisions are usually interim in nature and often lead to imperfect solutions. Lynch V. Donnelly did not solve the problems posed by government-supported Nativity scenes or other religious symbols. The controversy lives on and the courts continue to struggle with one of the most difficult First Amendment problems.