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Court Decision Barring Menorah is Applauded by Jewish Groups

June 13, 1990
See Original Daily Bulletin From This Date

A number of Jewish groups are applauding the Supreme Court’s decision Monday to let stand an appellate court ruling barring the placement of a menorah in a public park in Burlington, Vt.

But the Chabad-Lubavitch movement is disappointed.

The high court refused to hear the city of Burlington’s appeal of a lower court ruling that the city should not have allowed the Hasidic movement to place the 16-foot menorah in a public park.

“There is no religious need to place sacred symbols of any faith on public property. Hence, there is no religious need to be accommodated by the government,” said Samuel Rabinove, legal director for the American Jewish Committee.

He said that “ample private places exist for the public display of creates and menorahs–churches, synagogues, religious schools, private homes, lawns and storefronts.”

But Nathan Lewin, the Washington attorney who represents Chabad, said the Hasidic movement was stressing an important principle in placing menorahs on public land during Chanukah. This is to let Jewish residents know that “the city respects their faith no less than it does the majority faith.”

“I’m disappointed the court did not take the case,” the attorney said. But he stressed that the court’s decision only affected the one case, in which a menorah was placed in a park adjacent to Burlington’s City Hall, with a sign reading “Happy Chanukah.”

He said the court’s decision does not mean that a menorah cannot be placed on public property anywhere else, including Burlington.

Rabbi David Saperstein, Washington representative of the Reform movement’s Union of American Hebrew Congregations, agreed that the decision was limited.

But he said it should be “a source of major relief” to everyone worried about the recent church-state decisions of the Supreme Court.


“The Supreme Court decision not to hear a case to further overturn religious freedom is an optimistic sign that there may still be a majority on the court that is worried about the direction the court is taking,” Saperstein said.

He urged Orthodox Jewish groups to “hear carefully the federal courts’ concern about the constitutionality” of such displays.

Chabad had received a permit from the city of Burlington to display the menorah each year since 1986. But in 1988, the permit was challenged by three local residents: Rabbi James Glazier of Temple Sinai, a Reform synagogue in South Burlington; the Rev. Robert Senghas, a retired Unitarian minister; and Mark Kaplan, a local attorney who is on the board of the Vermont chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union.

U.S. District Court Judge Franklin Billings of Vermont ruled that the city could allow the menorah to be displayed in the public park. But his decision was overturned 2-1 by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 2nd Circuit in New York, based on a Supreme Court ruling last July.

In that ruling, Allegheny vs. ACLU, the court said that a nativity scene inside a court-house in Pittsburgh was unconstitutional. But it ruled a menorah in front of a nearby government building was allowed, because it was next to a Christmas tree, which made it part of a secular holiday display.

Rabbi Glazier said in a telephone interview Tuesday that last December, the city moved the menorah near what he called a tree “bedecked with lights,” in an attempt to comply with the Allegheny decision.

But he said that he and the others who brought the suit had been assured by the city attorney that a permit will not be given for a menorah this year.

“I am very pleased” with the court’s decision Monday, “because the wall of separation between church and state has been maintained, if not strengthened,” Glazier said.

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