Court Rules on Use of Municipal Funds and Labor for Religious Display

The Appellate Division concluded that the context in which a menorah was displayed was not an unconstitutional endorsement of religion but that the nightly lighting of the menorah by municipal employees, even if the cost is reimbursed, violates the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. In Chabad of Mid-Hudson Valley v. City of Poughkeepsie, the Court found that a downtown display in the City's business district, which included lights, wreaths and a Christmas tree, even though these are not considered religious symbols, created a context for the nearby display of a menorah as a "celebration of the diversity of the holiday season."

However the Court concluded that:

"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, as required under the stipulation, would foster the perception of an unconstitutional excessive governmental entanglement with religion (see Walz v Tax Comm'n of City of New York, 397 US 664, 674; Citizens Concerned for Separation of Church & State v City & County of Denver, 481 F Supp 522, 530, cert denied 452 US 963; cf. American Civil Liberties Union v City of Birmingham, 791 F2d 1561, 1656-1566, cert denied 479 US 939; Ritell v Village of Briarcliff Manor, 466 F Supp 2d at 526; see also County of Allegheny v American Civil Liberties Union, Greater Pittsburgh Chapter, 492 US at 616 ["[t]he Christmas tree, unlike the menorah, is not itself a religious symbol"]). Accordingly, the Supreme Court should have granted that branch of the intervenors' motion which was for summary judgment declaring that the use of municipal funds, labor, and equipment to display the plaintiffs' menorah violates the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment to the extent of prohibiting the use of municipal funds, labor, and equipment to assist in the nightly lighting of the menorah."

-Steven Silverberg