NEW YORK (Dec. 13)
A federal appeals court’s ruling Tuesday that it was unconstitutional to put up a menorah in a public park in Burlington, Vt., has pleased those Jewish organizations that oppose the display of any religious symbols on public property.
But it came as a disappointment to the Chabad-Lubavitch movement, which put up the menorah and won an important case concerning a menorah in Pittsburgh earlier this year.
The decision overturned a federal district court’s ruling in Vermont, which permitted the City of Burlington to allow the 16-foot menorah to stand on public ground.
The menorah, which held a sign reading “Happy Chanukah,” had been displayed in the park adjoining the City Hall seasonally since 1986. The city had given Chabad permission annually each year since.
The legal challenge against the menorah display came from Burlington’s Reform Rabbi James Glazier, retired Unitarian Rev. Robert Senghas and attorney Mark Kaplan.
Jewish groups opposing religious displays on government property say the Vermont decision clarifies the U.S. Supreme Court’s intention in July’s Allegheny vs. ACLU ruling.
In the Allegheny decision, the Supreme Court determined that a nativity scene displayed by itself on public property in Pittsburgh violated the Constitution’s prohibition against government endorsement of religion.
At the same time, it ruled that a menorah standing next to a Christmas tree was constitutional, because it was part of secular holiday decoration.
‘VERY CLEARLY DISCRIMINATORY’
“Some people have been interpreting that decision to mean that a menorah is a secular symbol,” said Marc Stern, co-director of the American Jewish Congress Commission on Law and Social Action.
However, in the Vermont ruling, the court said its decision was based on the part of the Allegheny ruling regarding the creche.
The judges wrote that, like the creche, the menorah was “clearly a religious symbol.” In keeping with the Supreme Court decision, it could not constitutionally be permitted to stand alone on public property.
Rabbi Yehuda Krinsky, spokesman for the Lubavitch movement, called the ruling “very clearly discriminatory” and said that Chabad will definitely appeal the case to the Supreme Court.
The Vermont case is only one of several disputes across the country that have pitted Chabad, whose aim is to display menorahs in prominent locations, against civil libertarian groups and Jewish organizations that oppose such displays.
They include AJCongress, the Anti-Defamation League of B’nai B’rith, the Reform movement’s Union of American Hebrew Congregations and various local Jewish community relations councils.
Al Vorspan, senior vice president of the UAHC, said he was “deeply gratified” by Tuesday’s ruling. He hailed it as “a major victory for religious freedom and the separation of church and state.”
“For some years now,” Vorspan said in a statement released Wednesday, “the Lubavitch movement, in its zeal to justify the public display of menorahs during the Chanukah season, has belittled their religious significance.”
Glazier, the Reform rabbi of South Burlington’s Temple Sinai, who had been fighting the menorah display in court for more than a year, said in a telephone interview that his only regret was that the court chose to rule on the case in December.
“We were not interested in pursuing it in the holiday season,” he said. “We wish (the decision) had occurred during a less emotional time of the year.”