Supreme Court Declines to Review Lower Court Ruling on Display of a Cross on the Roof of a Fire Depa
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Supreme Court Declines to Review Lower Court Ruling on Display of a Cross on the Roof of a Fire Depa

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The Supreme Court has declined to review a federal appellate court decision barring the city of St. Charlles, Ill., from displaying a large, lighted Christian cross on the roof of its fire department as part of an annual Christmas display.

The Supreme Court last week also ruled that the Ansonia, Conn., school system need not accept a teacher’s proposed alternative to unpaid leave for religious purposes as long as it makes a reasonable proposal of its own to accomodate his religious needs. The suit, brought by Ronal Philbrook, a member of the Worldwise Church of God, was sent back to lower federal courts for further proceedings.

In the St. Charles case, the court let stand the decision by Federal Appellate Judge Richard Posner that a prominent display by the city of such an “unmistakeable symbol of Christianity” violated the First Amendment ban against the establishment of religion because it “dramatically conveys a message of governmental support for Christianity.”

Posner drew a distinction between the cross and the less conspicuous nativity scene in Pawtucket, R.I., that the Supreme Court upheld in a 1984 case. In that decision, the court noted that the holiday display included a Christmas tree and other more secular symbols of Christmas.

The case in Ansonia turned on the Court’s interpretation of Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act which specifically requires an employer to “reasonably accommodate” an employe’s “religious observance or practice without undue hardship on the conduct of the employer’s business.”

Philbrook sued because he was docked for some of the six days a year he took off for religious observance. He had proposed that he be allowed to supplement the three days of religious leave to which he was entitled in his union contract with three additional days under the contract provision for “necessary personal business.” But the contract barred use of “personal business” leave for religious purposes.

Chief Justice William Rehnquist, joined by six other Justices, held that there is “no basis in either the statute (of the Civil Rights Act) or its legislative history for requiring an employer to choose any particular reasonable accommodation” or to accept any of the employe’s alternative proposals even if they do not involve “undue hardship>”

Justice Thurgood Marshall dissented in part, arguing that the employer should be required to accept any reasonable proposal of the employe that does not cause the employer “undue hardship.”

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