Ruling on religious displays is unlikely to impact S.F.

A federal appeals court ruling ordering cities to give equal consideration to religious groups wishing to display religious symbols in public areas is unlikely to affect San Francisco, observers say.

That's because San Francisco has an evenhanded policy toward religious symbols on public property. For years, the Orthodox group Chabad has been allowed to erect a chanukiah in Union Square, the same locale where a giant Christmas tree is frequently displayed.

But what is more important than the fact that various religious symbols have been allowed on public property here is that "the process [allowing a range of symbols to appear] exists," said attorney Fred Blum, former president of the regional American Jewish Congress, the organization that initiated the lawsuit leading to the appeals court ruling.

Last week's ruling by the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco states that the city of Beverly Hills violated the Constitution by allowing Chabad to erect a large chanukiah in a public park while rejecting other religious displays.

The Chabad chanukiah, a 2-1/2-ton, 27-foot structure driven into the ground with steel spikes, has been erected a block from City Hall since 1986. Every year during the holiday season, it remains in place for two weeks. Its electric candles are lit and songs and prayers recited at its base.

However, two other groups that applied to put up public religious symbols nearby, one a Latin cross, another a winter solstice display, were denied permission because Beverly Hills did not view their plans as specific enough. By denying the requests, the court said in a unanimous 11-0 decision, the city created the appearance of favoritism.

Elaborating on the ruling, Judge Betty Fletcher said that the constitutional separation of church and state is violated when a city "on an ad-hoc basis with no standards to guide it, [chooses] one religious group and [permits] it to erect a display while denying all other groups permission to erect displays" in public parks.

The court ruled that Beverly Hills must develop a standardized permit system if it wishes Chabad or any other group to erect religious displays on public property.

"This decision is a big deal because it is the first in the country to say that a religious symbol was improperly permitted in a public park," Carol Sobel, an attorney who represented the AJCongress, told the Los Angeles Times.

The AJCongress originally filed the suit together with four Jewish residents of Beverly Hills, with the Anti-Defamation League filing a friend-of-the-court brief. Both organizations oppose religious symbols on public property, arguing that they violate the constitutional separation of church and state. The groups have tangled with Chabad on the issue.

In San Francisco, Chabad has erected a giant chanukiah in Union Square since 1975. Rabbi Yosef Langer of Chabad of San Francisco said that because the city decides democratically which religious symbols are allowed on public property, he expects the Chabad chanukiah to be displayed "forevermore."

Langer said he doubts last week's court ruling will result in the removal of the Beverly Hills chanukiah, but instead will prompt the city to review how it handles such displays. The ruling highlights the issue of equal access to the law, he said, and "Chabad doesn't have a problem with that."

In recent years, the U.S. Supreme Court has moved toward allowing the display of religious symbols in public places, provided that equal access is granted to all applicants.

Last year, the Supreme Court ruled that the Ku Klux Klan had a right to erect a cross in a civic square in Columbus, Ohio, after Chabad had been allowed to display a menorah in the same square.

Leslie Katz

Leslie Katz is a former J. staff writer.