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Lawsuit Seeks Removal of Hanukkah Menorah : Holiday: American Jewish Congress says 28-foot display in Beverly Hills park violates constitutional separation of religion and state. Backers claim it is symbolically similar to presence of a Christmas tree.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

The American Jewish Congress and four Jewish residents of Beverly Hills have filed a federal civil rights suit against the city of Beverly Hills in an effort to force the removal of a 28-foot Hanukkah menorah from a municipal park bordering Santa Monica Boulevard.

The large candelabra was installed by Chabad, a Brooklyn-based movement of Hasidic Jews, which has sought for years to obtain the same prominence in public places for the Hanukkah symbol as is given to Christmas trees.

But Carol Plotkin, associate director for the American Jewish Congress’ local office, said her group believes minority rights are best served by barring all such objects.

“There are plenty of opportunities to put up creches or menorahs or any other religious object on private property. Government should be free of any religious objects,” she said.

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The suit was filed Monday, the day the menorah was installed. The menorah is a symbol of the eight-day Hanukkah holiday, which celebrates the rededication of the temple in Jerusalem after a victory over foreign occupiers 2,100 years ago. The holiday began Tuesday evening.

It is marked by the exchange of gifts, the eating of traditional foods and the lighting of candles in menorahs, one for each night until all eight candles are in place. The Chabad menorah is scheduled to be lit at a celebration on Sunday that is expected to draw 2,000 people.

Beverly Hills City Atty. Greg Stepanicich defended the city’s approval of the Chabad menorah, saying that state and federal courts have allowed holiday displays if they make a larger statement about “cultural diversity and pluralism.”

“In our case, we do have a lighted Christmas tree, a lighted ‘Seasons Greetings’ sign, and now we’ve allowed the menorah as part of that overall holiday message,” Stepanicich said. The city also pays for lighted signs showing carolers and other traditional Christmas figures over main streets in the Beverly Hills business district, he said.

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Stepanicich noted that in a landmark case last year, the U.S. Supreme Court allowed the display of a menorah and a Christmas tree side by side in the entry of a county building in Pittsburgh.

But Plotkin said that because of its size and prominence, the Beverly Hills menorah amounts to a “stand-alone display” during the day. The Christmas tree and the “Seasons Greetings” sign are far less visible except when lit at night.

Rabbi Boruch Shlomo Cunin, West Coast director for Chabad, was out of town and not available for comment.

Marshall B. Grossman, Chabad’s attorney, said that the electrified carolers in the commercial district are “out-and-out Christmas decorations and nobody objects to that, but when it comes to a menorah that attracts thousands of people in the celebration of this season, the American Jewish Congregation yells foul.”

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In their suit, which was filed with the help of the American Civil Liberties Union, the plaintiffs charged that the city violated the 1st Amendment’s ban on the official establishment of religion.

Specifically, they said, the City Council--all five members of which are Jewish--was wrong when it voted earlier this year to allow the display of “any and all” religious symbols on public land.

Mayor Allan L. Alexander declined to comment on the suit, but he said that the decision had proven so controversial that the City Council plans to reopen the question at a public hearing in January.

In addition to the American Jewish Congress, a civil rights organization claiming 4,000 members locally and 50,000 nationwide, the plaintiffs are Eve Slaff, widow of former Beverly Hills Mayor George Slaff, Alan Sieroty, a former state assemblyman and state senator, and Devera Lurie Waldman and Charles Waldman.

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All four live in Beverly Hills and they pass the site of the menorah frequently, the suit said.

“I’m opposed to using public grounds for that purpose,” Slaff said. “My husband, George, before he died was very active on this particular issue, so I’m carrying on his position.”


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