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Court’s Ruling on Menorah Criticized by Jewish Groups

From Religious News Service

Jewish organizations were generally upset with the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling that upheld the display of a menorah on public property in Pittsburgh, objecting to it both for church-state reasons and because they believe that it secularizes a Jewish religious symbol.

While striking down the display of a creche at a Pittsburgh courthouse because it stood alone under a banner that said, “Glory to God in the Highest,” the court on Monday upheld the menorah display next to a Christmas tree on the ground that “both Christmas and Hanukkah are part of the same winter holiday season, which has attained a secular status in society.”

“The court’s holding . . . will further hasten the transformation of Hanukkah from a religious to a cultural event,” said Phil Baum, associate director of the American Jewish Congress. “This is the inevitable price paid for seeking to enlist official endorsement for religious practices.”

Little Firm Guidance

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Baum also contended that “the court’s emphasis on general physical context as a means of assessing the constitutionality of religious symbols on public land gives little firm guidance to local governments. Questions left open by the court are exactly what contextual factors are important, which ones suffice to make a display acceptable and whether a joint holiday display consisting of a creche and a menorah is permissible. We expect the courts to be cluttered with cases trying to determine which factors the Supreme Court found controlling.”

The placement of menorahs at government sites, including Los Angeles City Hall, has been promoted around the country by the Chabad Lubavitch movement, an Orthodox Jewish group. Its officials welcomed the Supreme Court ruling.

But Sholom D. Comay, president of the American Jewish Committee, said, “There is simply no religious need for the display of sacred symbols of any faith in or at government buildings. There is ample private space available for the public display of sacred symbols in churches, synagogues, religious schools, private homes, lawns and storefronts.”

Court’s Ruling Denounced

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In contrast, the court’s ruling against the creche display was denounced by Robert K. Skolrood, executive director of the National Legal Foundation, which has often worked with evangelical Christian groups in church-state cases.

Skolrood said the court “endorsed the ridiculous ‘plastic reindeer rule,’ finding that the creche scene in Pittsburgh was not sufficiently balanced by secular symbols of the holiday. Fortunately, the court was not as hostile toward the menorah.

“A lot of bigots have been hiding behind the skirts of the First Amendment,” Skolrood said. “Showing no true concern for free speech or freedom of assembly, these anti-religious fanatics are out to destroy the beliefs and cherished values that made our nation strong.”

The Rev. Robert L. Maddox, executive director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State, said his organization “would have preferred a clean sweep, that is, no religious symbols at all.” He added, however, that “this is something we could live with, even if it is another scary 5-4 decision.”

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