Controversy heats up over public menorah

The sight of Chabad Rabbi Yosef Langer climbing into a cherrypicker and lighting an 8-foot-tall menorah in Union Square is something of a San Francisco institution. But that tradition may be stopped if the Bay Area Chapter of Americans United for Separation of Church and State have their way.

The 2,000-strong local chapter of the religious liberty watchdog group has asked city officials not to allow the menorah to stand in a public park during Chanukah.

In a letter dated Oct. 31, Americans United stated their opposition to all unattended religious symbols on taxpayer-owned property. The group has unsuccessfully opposed the permit granted to Chabad by the City and County of San Francisco Recreation and Park Department for several years. However, a recent federal court ruling might add new ammunition to the Americans United fight.

According to Martin Kassman, a San Francisco lawyer and member of Americans United, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in September that the city of Beverly Hills violated religious liberty provisions of the California Constitution by allowing Chabad to erect its menorah in a public park in that city.

The court said the menorah contradicted the no-preference and establishment clauses of the state constitution that prohibit government grants of money or property for religious purposes. These clauses forbid even the appearance of governmental preference for one religious faith.

The city of Beverly Hills allowed Chabad to place permanent menorah holders in the ground, thus equaling a "grant of real property to a religious organization," Kassman said.

According to Langer, the San Francisco menorah does not attach to any permanent holders in the ground.

"We rent Union Square. We pay about $1,000 for the week. It's a public forum for people to express their views on life," Langer said.

Kassman and Americans United disagree.

"We don't want any religious symbols represented on taxpayer-owned property. We're very consistent in this way," he said.

Americans United is one of the sponsors of a lawsuit challenging the San Francisco city government's ownership of a large cross in Mt. Davidson Park. It also opposed a proposal to place a statue of Buddha on the north promontory of Lake Merced.

As of Monday of this week the City and County of San Francisco Recreation and Park Department had not responded to Americans United letter or granted Chabad a permit.

Langer says he's not too worried, though. He's faced opposition for the now 20-year-old menorah-lighting tradition before.

In previous years the American Jewish Congress joined Americans United in their fight. The AJCongress has not specifically endorsed Americans United this year. However, it issued a letter earlier this year opposing all free-standing symbols in public parks.

The Jewish Community Relations Council also opposed the menorah in its infancy, Langer said. But about 15 years ago the JCRC polled San Francisco Jews about the menorah and "apparently a lot of people supported it because they [the JCRC] backed off," Langer said.

"If you try to squash people's expression of free speech, they're going to be upset," he added. "The menorah celebration crosses all lines of all peoples. It's a city institution."

Kassman acknowledges that this battle could be upsetting and divisive to San Francisco's Jewish community. However, he does not view the menorah conflict as a free speech issue and believes ultimately, "speaking as a Jew, this [Americans United actions] is good for the Jews.

"Historically Jews have been the foremost advocates of the separation of church and state. Maybe some people see the menorah on public property as approval of Jews. But I'm not interested in having my government endorse my or any other religion," Kassman said.

"I'd much rather they keep their nose out of religion and then we'll all be able to practice our own religion on an equal basis and as the founders intended."