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U.S. Court Sides with Chabad in Ruling on Menorah Displays

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Jewish organizations are divided over a federal appeals court ruling that allows religious groups to maintain religious displays on government property without violating the Constitution.

Chabad-Lubavitch of Georgia may erect and maintain a 15-foot menorah in front of the state Capitol Building in Atlanta during the eight nights of Chanukah, the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled last week.

The case centered on the rights of religious groups to display religious symbols on government property.

Chabad and some other Jewish groups have long sought to accompany Christian symbols placed in the public’s view with Jewish symbols.

“We’re delighted,” said Rabbi Yehuda Krinsky, spokesman for the fervently Orthodox Lubavitch movement, which brought the case against the Georgia state government. “We hope that opposition to these menorahs will stop.”

The decision drew criticism, however, from members of the mainstream Jewish community.

“We very much regret (the) decision,” said Marc Stern, a lawyer for the American Jewish Congress, who said the group believes religious symbols do not belong on government property.

“There is no need to hijack government property” to display religious symbols.

Rulings by other federal courts are at odds with this decision, said Stern, making this case one that the Supreme Court would be likely to hear if Georgia chose to appeal.

According to Krinsky, the Chabad-Lubavitch movement has won recent court cases involving the public display of menorahs in Grand Rapids, Mich., and Cincinnati. A similar case in White Plains, N.Y., is pending.

Chabad had sought permission from the Georgia Governor’s Office to erect a candelabrum in front of a state building during Chanukah, Judaism’s festival of lights.

Georgia had denied the request.

Chabad argued that a prohibition of its annual candle-lighting ritual violated its right of free speech.

Georgia was concerned that allowing a Jewish religious symbol on government property would unfairly imply that the government had violated the Constitution by formally endorsing the establishment of Judaism as the state religion.

In its opinion, the court cited a limerick related by Chabad’s counsel during oral argument: “It seems to a young rabbi of Chabad; That the Constitution is exceedingly odd; To protect all speech in a public place; On AIDS, abortion, or race; But to prohibit any person’s mention of God.”

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