Behind the Headlines: Court Decisions Settle Little on Issue of Holiday Displays

Tis the season for menorahs and creches, and that means Jewish groups and municipal authorities across the country are once again entangled in the debate over the constitutionality of religious displays on public property.

Lined up on one side of the controversy is the Chabad-Lubavitch movement, which sponsors large menorahs displayed on public grounds in locations around the world.

Opposing the menorah displays along with civil liberties groups are a number of Jewish organizations who object to any religious display on government property. They include the American Jewish Congress, the Anti-Defamation League of B’nai B’rith and the Reform movement of Judaism.

At the center of the controversy in the Jewish world is the issue of whether a menorah is a religious symbol or if it has enough non-religious connotations to be considered a secular symbol.

“Chabad has always maintained that the menorah is a religious symbol, but with secular connotations,” explained Rabbi Yehuda Krinsky, a Chabad spokesman.

The menorah “inherently symbolizes a universal message of freedom, of right over might, the miracle of victory of the few over the many, and the righteous over the wicked,” said Krinsky.

But Albert Vorspan, senior vice president of the Reform movement’s Union of American Hebrew Congregations, believes that such a view “belittles” the Chanukah menorah’s religious significance.

“Most Jewish groups have opposed Lubavitch, arguing that the menorah is one of the most important and historic of Jewish religious symbols,” he said in a statement issued last week.

PITTSBURGH WON’T ALLOW MENORAH

Cities find themselves in the middle of this debate when Chabad asks permission to put up a menorah and other Jewish groups urge that such permission be denied. Whether cities allow the menorah displays or forbid them, they run an equal risk of finding themselves in court.

Last Friday, Chabad filed suit against Pittsburgh city officials, to challenge their refusal to allow the Hasidic Jewish group to erect a menorah on the steps of City Hall.

Pittsburgh was the city in question in the Supreme Court’s Allegheny vs. ACLU case last July. The court, at that time, permitted the Lubavitch menorah to stand on the City Hall steps alongside a Christmas tree.

But it ruled that a nativity scene standing alone in the county courthouse implied government endorsement of religion and was therefore unconstitutional.

The Pittsburgh city administration, under the leadership of Mayor Sophie Masloff, who is Jewish, decided this year that if there could be no nativity scene in the courthouse, there would be no menorah at City Hall.

So, the Christmas tree remains on the City Hall steps, and Lubavitch is in court to force the city to permit the menorah to stand beside it.

“I think it is absolutely ridiculous that after the city spent all that money defending itself (in the Supreme Court case) and the Supreme Court ruled in our favor to put the menorah up, that they are now turning around and not allowing the display,” said an attorney who formerly represented Chabad in the case.

Pittsburgh City Solicitor Dan Pellegrini believes the city has the right to block the menorah display.

“No one has the right to put anything on city steps,” he said. “They’re not a public forum–this is a public building, but the steps and the side of the building are not.”

BURLINGTON CIRCUMVENTING RULING

In order to try to avoid the type of turmoil that the menorah displays have caused in Pittsburgh, groups such as AJCongress and ADL are recommending that local governments not allow religious displays on public grounds. They are urging that religious symbols be displayed on private land instead.

In literature sent to ADL regional directors, the organization’s legal department suggests that ADL leaders remind local officials that while religious displays are permissible if “accompanied by secular symbols,” municipalities are “not required to allow religious symbols to be displayed at courthouses, statehouses and city halls.”

The reminder was sent anticipating that “the Lubavitch movement likely will try to erect menorahs at many government buildings this year.”

Nathan Lewin, an attorney for Chabad, said that the efforts to put up menorahs are succeeding this year, thanks to the July Supreme Court ruling.

He said “a substantial number of communities,” including Teaneck, N.J., and several California cities, have agreed to allow Lubavitch to put up menorahs, usually in conjunction with a Christmas tree or another type of holiday display.

One municipal government that appears sympathetic to the Lubavitch position is that of Burlington, Vt.

The city is allowing a menorah to be erected, despite a Dec. 12 federal appeals court ruling that the menorah could not be displayed standing alone in a park adjoining City Hall.

Burlington officials say that the menorah will now be displayed alongside a Christmas tree that a downtown business association has decided for the first time to put up in the same park.

‘LAW BY INTERIOR DECORATOR’

John Franco, Burlington’s assistant city attorney, blames the federal courts for saddling city governments with both unending controversy and crippling legal costs.

And what makes it especially absurd, he said, is that after two years of litigation, the constitutionality of the menorah display has ended up turning on whether or not there is a Christmas tree standing beside it.

Pittsburgh Solicitor Pellegrini also commented on the absurdity of the situation, but said that his city would stand by its decision to display only a Christmas tree.

“What we’re getting is constitutional law by interior decorator,” Pellegrini said. He interpreted Pittsburgh’s decision to have only a Christmas tree as “our ‘interior decorator’ saying that this year, we’d just go simple.”

(JTA staff writer Susan Birnbaum and Iris Sampson of the Pittsburgh Jewish Chronicle contributed to this report.)

NEXT STORY