Catherine Enos – Opinions editor
This archived article is from the October 18, 1983 issue of The Anchor.
Most people probably don’t know that Rhode Island was the subject of national attention in 1983. The issue that brought the attention was a nativity scene put up by the City of Pawtucket. Not only did the New York Times cover the story, it was also the subject of a U. S. Supreme Court case: Lynch v. Donnelly.
Exactly a week after the U.S. Supreme Court heard the case, the director of the American Civil Liberties Union (A.C.L.U.), Steve Brown (who is still the director of the A.C.L.U.) visited RIC’s Political Science Club to discuss the controversy.
Though the article does not talk about the decision of the case (since it was decided months after the article was published), a quick look into the case reveals that the Supreme Court ruled in favor of the City of Pawtucket. In a 5-4 decision, the majority opinion of the court stated that the depictions of the origin of the holiday were not advocating for religion, that the display was for “legitimate secular purposes,” and that the case, therefore, did not violate the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment (which prohibits the government’s involvement “respecting an establishment of religion”) (oyez.org).
What’s interesting about this story is the legacy and precedence it has left for the entire country. When looking into the case, it pops up not only in academic reviews, but it’s also mentioned in a collection of newspaper discussions about the separation of church and state in recent years.
Though many of us Rhode Islanders may have forgotten about Lynch v. Donnelly (especially those of us who weren’t alive yet), it is perhaps one of the few times that Little Rhody has left a lasting impression in an important area of national debate.