What we have here is a reindeer ruling

Readers who want a quick way to evaluate today’s MSM coverage of the U.S. Supreme Court rulings in the Ten Commandment cases can follow these simple directions.

Go to Google News and type in the words “Ten Commandments,” followed by the word “reindeer.” This will help you find the reporters who listened carefully and realized that, in church-state studies terms, what we have here is another reindeer ruling.

And what, you ask, is that? Here is a clip from the Los Angeles Times report by David G. Savage that nails the crucial facts:

In the past, the court has struggled to decide disputes involving religious displays. Often, the outcome turned on trivial details. For example, the court in 1984 upheld a city’s display of a manger scene during the Christmas season, but only because it included reindeer and colored lights. Several years later, it struck down a more solemn depiction of Christ’s birth that sat during the Christmas season on the steps of Pittsburgh’s City Hall.

In other words, public displays of religion are acceptable. However, they must feature a number of religious items displayed in such a way as to communicate that the various faiths are of equal truth and stature.

The tension is obvious. The goal is to show that all religions are equal in the eyes of the state. The problem is that it is hard to do this without drifting into a state-funded proclamation that all religions are equal in the eyes of God. Religious toleration is not the same thing as theological toleration. The state must avoid the latter because it is, well, a theological belief that cannot be backed with tax dollars.

A few newspapers caught the reindeer angle. Many did not. Washington Post columnist George Will dug into this angle in his op-ed piece, under the headline “Thou Shalt Split Hairs.” The massive opening paragraph captures the mood felt by many church-state lawyers on both sides of this dispute:

The Supreme Court rendered two more hairsplitting, migraine-inducing decisions yesterday about when religious displays on public property do and do not violate the First Amendment protection against “establishment” of religion. In a case from Texas, where a Ten Commandments monument stands outside the state capitol, the court, splintered six ways from Sunday, said: We find no constitutional violation. The second case came from Kentucky, where the Commandments displayed in several courthouses are surrounded by historical symbols and documents — e.g., copies of the Mayflower Compact, the Declaration of Independence, the Star Spangled Banner — to comply with the “reindeer rule,” more about which anon. Yesterday the court recoiled from Kentucky’s displays, saying, they are unconstitutionally motivated by a “predominately religious purpose.” Not enough reindeer?

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About tmatt

Terry Mattingly directs the Washington Journalism Center at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. He writes a weekly column for the Universal Syndicate.

  • Brian lewis

    I disagree.

    If it’s just about reindeer, than why in Justice Souter’s opinion did he reference the constitutionality of military chaplains.
    There is nothing secular about a religious chaplain who helps soldiers and/or sailors practice their religious belief. Rather, a military chaplain helps facilitate the “free exercise of religion.”

    And it all comes back to Rehnquist’s comments in his opinion about the Janus-like nature of Supreme Court jurisprudence in these cases acknowledging both the strong role religion has played in our history and also the principle that “governmental intervention in religious matters can itself endanger religious freedom.”

    It is not a matter of simply splitting hairs or counting reindeer but rather of striking a balance between preventing an establishment of religion and allowing for its free exercise.

    If that were not the case, if it was just about reindeer, than military chaplains would be unconstitutional.

  • Erik Nelson

    The problem is that there were two decisions which appeared to come down on two different sides of the issue. The splitting of hairs came over where on government grounds the commandments were displayed. In one case the Court ruled that they could not be displayed inside a courtroom, but in the other case they ruled that they commandments could be displayed outside on gov’t property. Now, there is no self-evident constitutional grounds for this distinction. The reason for it is because one judge’s (was it Stevens who switched over? I can’t remember off the top of my head) perception of government endorsement of religion. Had that judge not changed their mind, we would have no commandments on government property whatsoever. The result is a mishmash of constitutional law simply because of one judge’s perception of what constitutes government endorsement. I would have prefered that they issue consistent decisions, even if that would have meant no commandments at all. At least then the decisions would have made sense.

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  • tmatt


    The issue of public displays has always been more complicated and muddled.

    From the point of view of the gov’t, the chaplain issue is actually quite similar — lots of religious faiths working side by side supposedly on equal footing.

    This is why the separation of Wicca and state is such an interesting story….