Chabad Menorahs in Public Spaces-Supreme Court Decision Twenty Years Ago

It has been 20 years since the Supreme Court decision that allowed menorahs in public places. Chabad packaged itself as American civil religion with “no effort to proselytize”.  It is interesting to note how much of Chabad that we know was created in the twilight last years of the Rebbe’s life. It is also interesting how much they expanded American concepts of religion.  Chabad reports:

(lubavitch.com) When the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that placing Chabad-owned menorahs in public spaces did not violate the establishment clause, it set a slab of precedent for Chabad centers to rest their menorah requests upon.
As the 21st anniversary of the Allegheny vs. ACLU ruling nears, the experiences of Chabad representatives across the United States reveal just how useful or not the landmark decision has been in bringing Chanukah’s light, message of peace and religious liberty to the public square. From Montana to Mumbai, from the Western Wall to the Great Wall of China, Chabad’s public menorah lightings number in the thousands.

Over the years, as calls from representatives lit up the switchboard at Lubavitch World Headquarters, Rabbi Krinsky’s office put them in touch with the well-known constitutional attorney Nathan Lewin of Washington, D.C. who has litigated many of the menorah cases. Lewin led Chabad’s case before the Supreme Court and created a packet of legal materials to help Chabad representatives present established precedents that consistently supported public menorah displays in a clear, concise manner. Attorney Charles Saul of Pittsburgh, PA saw Chabad’s landmark Allegheny vs. ACLU suit together with Mr. Lewin all the way through to the Supreme Court.

And here is the original Supreme Court decision

JUSTICE BLACKMUN concluded in Part VI that the menorah display does not have the prohibited effect of endorsing religion, given its “particular physical setting.” Its combined display with a Christmas tree and a sign saluting liberty does not impermissibly endorse both the Christian and Jewish faiths, but simply recognizes that both Christmas and Chanukah are part of the same winter holiday season, which has attained a secular status in our society. The widely accepted view of the Christmas tree as the preeminent secular symbol of the Christmas season emphasizes this point. The tree, moreover, by virtue of its size and central position in the display, is clearly the predominant element, and the placement of the menorah beside it is readily understood as simply a recognition that Christmas is not the only traditional way of celebrating the season. The absence of a more secular alternative to the menorah negates the inference of endorsement.

JUSTICE O’CONNOR also concluded that the city’s display of a menorah, together with a Christmas tree and a sign saluting liberty, does not violate the Establishment Clause. The Christmas tree, whatever its origins, is widely viewed today as a secular symbol of the Christmas holiday. Although there may be certain secular aspects to Chanukah, it is primarily a religious holiday, and the menorah its central religious symbol and ritual object. By including the menorah with the tree, however, and with the sign saluting liberty, the city conveyed a message of pluralism and freedom of belief during the holiday season, which, in this particular physical setting, could not be interpreted by a reasonable observer as an endorsement of Judaism or Christianity or disapproval of alternative beliefs

In permitting the displays of the menorah and the creche, the city and county sought merely to “celebrate the season,” and to acknowledge the historical background and the religious as well as secular nature of the Chanukah and Christmas holidays.There is no suggestion here that the government’s power to coerce has been used to further Christianity or Judaism, or that the city or the county contributed money to further any one faith or intended to use the creche or the menorah to proselytize. Thus, the creche and menorah are purely passive symbols of religious holidays, and their use is permissible

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