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When can manger scenes appear on public land?

The 1983 Supreme Court case Lynch v Donnelly brought church and state together in one important decision. In it, the court decided that a city-owned creche (also known as a manger scene) could remain on private land because it was part of a greater display. It wasn’t a stand-alone creche. It was surrounded by Christmas trees, a Santa’s village, and more. The diorama could stay because it held no significant religious value. It was, in their words, “ceremonial deism”.

In this modern era where it seems like religion is slipping away from public life, it’s good to stop and ask what we’re losing. Do our public displays of piety have any real Christian weight to them in the first place? What are we fighting for if “In God We Trust” doesn’t specify which God it’s referring to?

When can manger scenes appear on public land? The answer is… “it depends”.

Supreme Court audio for this episode was used with a Creative Commons License from The audio was edited from it’s original form.

Helpful Links:

Discussion Questions:

  • Where do you see examples of ceremonial deism?
  • What do expressions of ceremonial deism hope to achieve in our society? Does it work? How can we make them better?
  • Do you like seeing God on the money? Why?
  • Where would you like to see more of God in the public square? Where would you like to see less?
  • Should we be more specific in our public displays?
  • Do you think the manger scene can be both religious and non-religious?
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