CHICAGO -- Chicago can no longer display its much-debated Christmas creche in the City Hall lobby during the holiday season because it violates the U.S. Constitution, the U.S. Court of Appeals has ruled.

In a split decision, the three-judge panel Tuesday overturned a lower court ruling Nov. 5 that cited the United States' Christian heritage as grounds for permitting the holiday display.

Appeals Judge Joel Flaum wrote that because the creche was on display in a government building, passers-by would be left with the unavoidable impression that the city tacitly endorses Christianity.

"A creche in City Hall thus brings together church and state in a manner that unmistakably suggests their alliance," Flaum wrote.

"The display at issue in this case advanced religion by sending a message to the people of Chicago that the city approved of Christianity."

Appeals Judge Frank Easterbrook dissented in a blistering 24-page opinion that said the creche was part of a festive mosaic that includes two Christmas trees, a mechanical Santa Claus, a reindeer and sleigh, wreaths and banners.

The creche, which is owned and set up by a private labor-management institute, has been the target of several court challenges, the most recent coming last fall when the American Jewish Congress filed suit in federal court seeking an order banning the display.

In his dissent, Easterbrook quoted the founding fathers, Charles Dickens and a landmark Supreme Court decision on the issue of church and state.

"Officials of Chicago will read with amusement the court's assertion that the city endorses whatever appears in City Hall. Do they all believe in Santa Claus, too?" Easterbrook wrote.

"The holder of a nickel need not trust in God, no matter what the coin says, and need not contribute the nickel or even three pence to a church. He may labor on Christmas if he likes -- though Ebenezer Scrooge had to give Bob Cratchit that day off without governmental compulsion."