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Court Rules Against Menorah Displayed in Beverly Hills Park

July 24, 1996
See Original Daily Bulletin From This Date

A federal appeals court has ruled that the city of Beverly Hills violated the Constitution by allowing Chabad to erect a menorah in a public park, while prohibiting other groups from displaying their own symbols in the same park.

The 9th Circuit Court of Appeals, sitting in San Francisco, found that Beverly Hills clearly showed favoritism toward Chabad of California. Such favoritism, the court said in a unanimous decision, constituted an establishment of religion forbidden by the First Amendment.

Chabad obtained permission in 1986 to erect a 27-foot-high menorah in the city park and “light” its electric candles at Chanukah. The event is accompanied by songs and prayers.

Many members of the Beverly Hills City Council are Jewish and some have participated in the menorah-lighting ceremonies.

The court noted that Beverly Hills has a general policy of not permitting residents to display large unattended objects on public property, but made an exception for Chabad.

In 1989, the court said, Beverly Hills had denied one group the right to erect a cross in a park, and prevented another from mounting a winter solstice display.

The court ruled that Beverly Hills must develop a standardized permit system if it wishes to allow Chabad or any other group to erect such displays on public property.

Rabbi Boruch Shlomo Cunin, West Coast director of Chabad-Lubavitch, called the decision “a technicality.”

“I’m confident that it will be settled by the city of Beverly Hills,” he said.

Cunin expressed confidence that “the menorah will be there again as other menorahs are standing across this great country of ours from sea to shining sea.”

The suit challenging the city’s action in permitting the menorah display was filed by the local chapter of the American Jewish Congress and four Jewish residents of Beverly Hills, with the Anti-Defamation League filing a friend-of- the-court brief.

The two Jewish organizations are opposed to religious displays on public property and have previously tangled with Chabad on the issue.

“Few principles of church-state law are as well-settled as that requiring government to scrupulously avoid any favoritism between one group’s religious speech and another’s,” Douglas Mirell, former president of AJCongress’ Southern Pacific Region, said after the decision.

“The city of Beverly Hills ignored that bedrock principle when it granted only a Jewish group the right to place its religious symbol in a public park.”

In recent years, the U.S. Supreme Court has moved toward allowing the display of religious symbols in public places, provided that equal access is granted to all applicants.

Last year, the Supreme Court ruled that the Ku Klux Klan had a right to erect a cross in a civic square in Columbus, Ohio, after Chabad had been allowed to display a menorah in the same square.

(JTA intern Heather Camlot in New York contributed to this report.)

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