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Lubavitch Loses a Battle in Holiday ‘war of Symbols’

A federal district court judge in Tampa turned down a request from the Lubavitch movement Tuesday to order the cities of Sarasota and Tampa, Fla. to allow members of the movement to place menorahs on public land in those communities.

Judge Elizabeth A. Kovachevich ruled that Lubavitch would not be irreparably harmed by the cities’ refusal to allow menorahs to be placed on public land and that the movement had not successfully demonstrated the merits of its claim that it was entitled to place religious symbols on public property, the American Jewish Congress reported.

A federal district court judge in Ohio turned down a similar request Tuesday from Lubavitch representatives seeking permission to place a menorah on public property in Cincinnati, AJCongress reported.

The Florida and Ohio cases are just the latest skirmishes in what some are calling “the war of the symbols.” At issue is a fundamental question of constitutional rights and, perhaps not coincidentally, a restatement of the basic Chanukah theme: What is the best way to protect the religious freedom of the minority despite the symbolic and cultural influence of the majority?

In the view of the Lubavitch, the Brooklyn-based Hasidic sect also known as Chabad, the best way is by ensuring “equal treatment.” A Constitution that allows Christmas trees and other holiday decorations to be displayed on public property should protect the lighting of menorahs in government places, they argue.

For groups like the American Civil Liberties Union and such major American Jewish organizations as the AJCongress and the Anti-Defamation League of B’nai B’rith, the answer is to remove all religious symbols — crosses, creches and menorahs — from public property and government buildings.

BATTLE ON SEVERAL FRONTS

As some Americans celebrate Chanukah this week and other Americans prepare to celebrate Christmas in two weeks, the “war of the symbols” is being fought on a number of fronts, including:

Hyde Park, Vt., where attorney Valerie White and the ACLU are crusading for removal of a cross from the courthouse lawn.

Palm Beach, Broward and Dade counties, Fla., where the state Department of Transportation withdrew permission it had previously granted the Synagogue of Inverrary-Chabad to erect menorahs at five toll plaza locations along the Florida Turnpike.

Chicago, where the city has reversed a decision to display a creche and a menorah in Daley Plaza downtown, and has revoked a Chabad permit.

That so many of these disputes involve menorahs is a relatively new development. Traditionally, the war of the symbols has focused on Jewish objections to Christian displays: nativity scenes on courthouse steps, crosses on the roofs of firehouses.

Display on public land implies government sponsorship, Jewish groups have long argued, and government sponsorship conveys the unconstitutional “establishment” of religion by government, barred by the First Amendment to the Constitution.

“When the symbolism is Christian, as it almost always will be, given the demography of America, the message conveyed is the establishment of Christianity,” Marc Stern, co-director of the American Jewish Congress Commission on Law and Social Action, writes in a recent report.

WINNING THE RANK AND FILE

But in recent years, the Lubavitch movement has shown a new assertiveness in erecting menorahs on public property, meaning Jewish groups are now taking opposite sides on constitutional issues. And for a change, the public relations race may belong to the Lubavitch, who speak to the segment of the Jewish rank and file that believes, “If you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em.”

The Florida cases began after the City Commissions in Sarasota and Tampa denied Chabad permission to place “a religious symbol” — a menorah — on public land.

Tuesday’s court decision turned down a last-minute request by Chabad to place a temporary restraining order on the bans.

According to Rabbi Alter Bukiet, executive director of Chabad Lubavitch of Manasota, Fla., Chabad had been attempting to demonstrate that a menorah, like a Christmas tree, is a universal, secular symbol as well as a religious one — and its message is thus protected under its constitutional right to free speech.

A SECULAR SYMBOL?

But according to a brief filed in the Sarasota-Tampa case by the American Jewish Congress on behalf of the Sarasota-Manatee Jewish Federation, the ADL and itself, Chabad’s claims for the secularity of the menorah are a “sham,” masking the movement’s true purpose in attempting to erect the menorah.

“The menorah is intended to be a religious symbol, and the (Lubavitch) leaders boast of its success in that regard,” according to the brief.

The brief followed a standard argument in church-state litigation: A Christmas tree, unlike a menorah, is for First Amendment purposes a secular symbol, because it carries a seasonal, but no actual religious, significance.

As in other communities, the local Jewish federation in Sarasota had invited Chabad to erect its menorah on federation or other privately-owned property. According to Jack Weintraub, executive director of the Sarasota-Manatee Jewish Federation, Bukiet’s reply to that invitation was, “We’ll do that, too.”

Members of the Lubavitch movement concede that erecting the menorahs on public property is one of the very goals of the program — an effort to provide what one rabbi described as “qualitative visibility.”

“On public property it’s us looking together — it’s not ‘you’ looking in,’ ” said Bukiet.

Tuesday’s court decisions have by no means settled the “war of the symbols.” According to Ruti Teitel, assistant director of the legal affairs department of ADL’s civil rights division, “The differences between the Lubavitch and the rest of the community don’t just revolve on this issue. It’s just one part. There’s aid to parochial schools, moments of silence, on and on. All are fundamental policy questions of how best to protect Jews.”

“No one likes to play Grinch,” said Marc Stern, “but that’s what this job requires.”

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