Friday, September 03, 2010

Court OKs Menorah Display, But Not Use of City Personnel and Equipment To Light It

In Chabad of Mid-Hudson Valley v. City of Poughkeepsie, (NY App. Div., Aug. 31, 2010), a New York state appellate court held that the display of an 18-foot high menorah on public property in downtown Poughkeepsie (NY) did not violate the Establishment Clause because:
in the immediate vicinity of the menorah, as well as throughout the downtown area, are garlands, wreaths, and white lights, which ... "typify the secular celebration of Christmas".... These nearby secular decorations serve to emphasize the cultural message of Chanukah as represented by the menorah.... The relevant context also includes the symbols in the public lot ... 250 east [or the menorah display] ... which ... included not only a Christmas tree but a display of the Muslim faith in the form of a star and crescent. Therefore while the menorah does not lose its its religious symbolism, its surroundings negate any appearance of government endorsement....
The court concluded however that the Establishment Clause was violated in "allowing the plaintiffs to use municipal funds, labor, and equipment for the nightly menorah lighting, even if the plaintiffs repaid the City for such labor and equipment" because this "would foster the perception of an unconstitutional excessive governmental entanglement with religion."