Somersaults for Public Funds

Establishing a Museum of Tolerance in Los Angeles to recall the Holocaust in Europe during World War II is surely a worthy goal, but the state has no business giving $5 million to a religious institution to build it. Gov. George Deukmejian should veto this unconstitutional expenditure even though it sailed through the Legislature last week by lopsided margins in both houses.

The museum is a project of the Simon Wiesenthal Center, a private organization that until recently was part of Yeshiva University--a sectarian school run by Orthodox rabbis. In order to get the $5 million in public funds, the center was "spun off" from Yeshiva University, but its leadership remains the same, and it is clearly part and parcel of that institution regardless of the somersaults being made to separate it.

Nor should anyone be fooled by the center's plan to include an exhibition in the museum marking the slaughter of Armenians by Ottoman Turks during World War I. This sweetener was added solely for the purpose of getting the expenditure approved by Deukmejian, who is of Armenian descent. The politics is obvious, and crass.

Despite a large letter-writing campaign from the Wiesenthal Center that made legislators afraid to vote against it, the expenditure is opposed on constitutional grounds by many in the Jewish community, including the American Jewish Committee and several chapters of the B'nai B'rith Anti-Defamation League. They and many others see the danger in appropriating public money to a religious organization, even for a good cause. If this expenditure goes through, many other such groups can be expected to line up at the public trough.

The state legislative counsel, Bion M. Gregory, looked into the legality of giving $5 million to the Wiesenthal Center and issued a conclusion that it might be constitutional or it might not be. Some conclusion. There should be no doubt about it. The appropriation is both illegal and unwise. The governor should veto it before the courts do.

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