The ideal manner of lighting the menorah is to do so in a place visible to the public, in order to publicize the miracle of Chanukah.(1) According to Jewish law, the menorah must be lit in every household and in the synagogue.(2) However, over the past few decades, there have been an increasing number of large menorahs displayed on public property and in government buildings. There is even an annual ceremony during which a large menorah is lit adjacent to the White House. This raises significant constitutional questions regarding government endorsement of religion and freedom of expression under the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.
Perhaps the most famous case involving a public display of a menorah is County of Allegheny v. ACLU, 492 U.S. 573 (1989). In that case, the U.S. Supreme Court held that an 18-foot menorah on display in a building owned by the City of Pittsburgh did not violate the Establishment Clause. The menorah was part of a larger display, which included a 45-foot Christmas tree and a “Salute to Liberty” sign.(3) The Supreme Court stated that the display did not have “the effect of endorsing both Christian and Jewish faiths . . . [R]ather [it] simply recognize[d] that both Christmas and Chanukah are part of the same winter-holiday season, which has attained a secular status in our society.”(4) Since, according to the Court, the display taken as a whole (menorah, tree and sign) would not reasonably be understood as an endorsement of religion, it was constitutional.
Allegheny v. ACLU certainly did not resolve the issue of placing a menorah on government property. Even after Allegheny there have been many such cases, particularly involving members of the Chabad-Lubavitch movement (as in Allegheny) placing menorahs on public property. For a list of some other menorah cases click here.
Do Religious Symbols Belong in the Public Square?
Even if it is constitutionally permissible to place menorahs and other religious objects on public property, an important question remains: Should Jews be in favor of such practices, or is it better to advocate for a public square absent of religious symbols?(5)
It seems that there are three strong arguments against religious displays on public property. First, it is important to maintain a strong separation between church and state, so that no one religion is favored by the government. Second, the highly conspicuous display of Jewish religious items may lead to anti-semitism. Third, as was alluded to in the Allegheny case, Chanukah has (unfortunately) attained a “secular status” in American society; placing large menorahs next to Christmas trees in “seasonal holiday” displays detracts from the true sanctity and meaning of the holiday.
On the other hand, the absence of public displays of religion may contribute to a societal preference of secularism over religion.(6)
I would be interested to hear readers’ opinions on the matter in the comments below.
(1) Shulchan Aruch, Orach Chaim § 671(5).
(2) Id. § 671(2), (7).
(3) The sign bore the mayor’s name, was entitled “Salute to Liberty,” and stated: “During this holiday season, the city of Pittsburgh salutes liberty. Let these festive lights remind us that we are the keepers of the flame of liberty and our legacy of freedom.” 492 U.S. 582.
(4) Id. at 616.
(5) This question was at the heart of American Jewish Congress v. City of Beverly Hills, 90 F. 3d 379 (9th Cir. 1996), in which the AJC attempted to prevent Chabad from erecting a menorah in a public park. See also, David E. Anderson, American Jewish Congress Decries Menorah Displays, South-Florida Sun Sentinel, June 19, 1987.