Ajcongress Urges Balanced Approach to Taking Menorahs off Public Land

American Jews who seek the removal of menorahs from display on public land must strike a careful balance between litigation and the discomfort of airing intra-Jewish conflict, an American Jewish Congress report recommends.

The report, “The Year of the Menorah” by staff attorney Marc Stern, said the issue has been intensified by the growing campaign of the Lubavitch movement to place the menorahs on government land across the country. Lubavitch claims dozens of successes.

Stern wrote that the growing legal challenges to the campaign by AJCongress and others, as well as a series of behind-the-scenes discussions and correspondence with Lubavitch, can be supplemented by the visible placement by the Jewish community of menorahs on private land.

JEWISH MINDS SEEM CHANGED

The American Jewish community overwhelmingly continues to support the principle of-church-state separation, the AJCongress study notes. But it points out that in the light of the Supreme Court’s 1984 opinion in the case of Lynch v. Donnelly, permitting displays of municipal creches, or nativity scenes, a small but growing number of Jews are reconciling themselves to religious symbols on public land, provided the policy applies to Jewish as well as Christian symbols.

The Lynch ruling, which allowed the erection of a creche on public property if it is part of a larger holiday season display, has provided momentum for the Lubavitch group’s effort to erect Chanukah menorahs on government land, a campaign that spread from a few large cities to many, if not most, cities in which the Lubavitch movement has offices, including Seattle; Phoenix; Santa Ana, Calif.; St. Louis; Providence, RI; Grand Rapids and Lansing, Mich.; Cleveland; Austin, Texas; Houston; Pittsburgh; Springfield, Mass.; Kansas City; Madison, Wis.; and Milwaukee.

The Lubavitch project, however, has since received the tacit, if not active, support of some other Jews who see the public display of menorahs to counterbalance the impact of Christmas displays on Jewish children.

Before the explicit sanction of the high court for religious displays on public property in Lynch, opposition to such displays was a dominant and virtually unquestioned principle throughout the Jewish community, the report says, making it “unthinkable” to erect menorahs on public property. It was principally the Lubavitch movement that refused to accept this “consensus.”

But the report also noted that Jewish organizations have never challenged the placement of Christmas trees, wreaths and lights on public property because such symbols often have non-religious origins and associations.

Significantly, many local Jewish community relations organizations and leaders, while opposed to the public placement of menorahs because it weakens the case for church-state separation, nevertheless have refrained from taking legal action against menorah displays.

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