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Supreme Court Allows Menorah to Remain Lit in Pittsburgh

January 1, 1990
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A 40-foot menorah displayed on the steps of Pittsburgh’s City Hall alongside a Christmas tree was able to remain standing through the eighth night of Chanukah, thanks to some last-minute assistance from the U.S. Supreme Court.

The court, voting 6-3 on Dec. 28, denied an emergency request by the city of Pittsburgh for the power to remove the menorah from government property.

The city had been denied the authority to bar the menorah by a federal district court, but that decision was reversed by the Third Circuit Court of Appeals.

On the eve of the first night of Chanukah, Justice William Brennan Jr. ruled that for the duration of the holiday, the menorah could stand, and last week’s full Supreme Court ruling supported that decision.

Joining Brennan in denying the city’s petition were Justices Byron White, Harry Blackmun, Thurgood Marshall, Sandra Day O’Connor and Anthony Kennedy. Chief Justice William Rehnquist and Justices John Paul Stevens and Antonin Scalia were in the minority.

The major players in the battle over the menorah were the Lubavitch movement Chabad, which sponsored the Pittsburgh menorah, and the city of Pittsburgh. The city was fighting for the right to control what may be displayed on its City Hall steps, which it maintained, is not a “public forum.”

Siding with the city was the American Jewish Congress, which has lobbied in communities across the country against the display of menorahs on public grounds by Chabad. The congress believes such displays violate the constitutional ban on government endorsement of religion.

CONTINUING COURT BATTLES

Thursday’s decision was “not a good sign from our point of view, but it’s not necessarily a disaster,” said AJCongress attorney Marc Stern.

He said that the legal battles in the days approaching Chanukah had to do with the preliminary issue of whether the menorah could stand while the full case is being fought out in court.

The case as a whole will now be considered by the federal district court, and if the past is any indication, will most likely return to the Supreme Court through continuing appeals.

“Between now and next Chanukah, this case will be litigated regularly,” Stern predicted.

Neither Stern nor Chabad spokesman Rabbi Yehuda Krinsky said he foresaw an end to the continuing court battles over the issue of menorah displays on public grounds.

Whether the court fights go on “is up to our adversaries,” Krinsky said, referring to groups that have opposed the menorah displays.

“They should see by now that they are fighting a losing battle,” said Krinsky. “There are more menorahs up this year than before.”

But Stern said Chabad appears to be uninterested in working out a compromise on menorah displays that would satisfy the larger Jewish community. Chabad will not be satisfied until “the rest of the community surrenders,” he charged.

“This is going to continue unless there is a final resolution in the courts or until someone gives up from exhaustion,” Stern said.

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