Happy Chanukah! (And Fun Legal Chanukah Fact-of-the-Day)

December 15, 2009

White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel Lights Chanukah Menorah in Front of White House on Sunday


Many of us  know that Chanukah is the Festival of Lights. One way that many communities have tried to spread the light of Chanukah is by holding public Menorah lighting displays in town and city centers throughout the United States and the world. 

This raises an interesting question of whether public Menorah lighting ceremonies and public Menorah displays on city property violate the First Amendment’s “Establishment Clause,” which prohibits the government from passing a law” respecting the establishment of religion.” The ACLU, among others, has litigated this issue in an attempt to stop people from holding public Menorah lighting ceremonies in public parks or on public property. 

When Rabbi Yossi Kaplan, of Chabad of Chester County, PA, applied to place a public Menorah on the property of the Allegheny County Courthouse, the ACLU sued the county to stop them. The two sides ultimately took the case all the way up to the Supreme Court of the United States, which issued its decision in favor of Rabbi Kaplan and Allegheny County almost exactly twenty years ago. You can read the decision of County of Allegheny v. ACLU, 492 U.S. 573 (1989). 

The court held that given the context in which the Menorah was displayed, it did not appear to either endorse or prohibit a particular religion but, together with the Christmas tree that was also displayed, sent the message that both holidays held a place in the national culture, but fell short of actually endorsing a religion. 

Thus, one can find public Menorah lightings in most cities with Jewish communities today

Happy Chanukah!

2 Responses to “Happy Chanukah! (And Fun Legal Chanukah Fact-of-the-Day)”

  1. Mike C. Says:

    I believe the Supreme Court’s stance on religios displays on public property is that the religious message of the item, such as a creche or menorah, is not as strong when in the context of secular symbols of the holiday, such as Santa Claus and a tree. The tree itself appears to have pre-christian, pagan origins. During the Roman celebration of the feast of Saturnalia, Pagans decorated their houses with clippings of evergreen shrubs. They also decorated living trees with bits of metal and replicas of their God, Bacchus. Tertullian (circa 160 – 230), an early Christian leader and a prolific writer, complained that too many fellow-Christians had copied the Pagan practice of adorning their houses with lamps and with wreathes of laurel at Christmas time.

  2. Mike,

    You’re definitley right about the secular items in the context being the basis for SCOTUS’ reasoning, which I refered to generally as “the context in which the Menorah was displayed.” You seem to be quite proficient in these matters. Which early Christian writer compained about too much copying of pagan practices? Thanks for commenting!


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