Dispatches from the Creation Wars

Southfield Removes Menorah

Here’s an interesting twist on the usual battles over holiday displays on government property: a Christian complaining about displays that celebrate Judaism but not Christianity. And it happened in a town I know well, Southfield, Michigan.

A menorah that has been part of Southfield’s outdoor holiday display for the past three years has become a hot potato that is going into cold storage.

The decision to exclude it from this year’s holiday scene was based on information that Southfield purchased the $750 menorah in 2000.

When a member of St. Michael Catholic Church in Southfield learned about the menorah and approached the city about displaying a creche, the city had to respond.

“A city can’t own a menorah any more than it can own a cross or nativity scene. To display it, knowing we bought it with tax dollars, is inappropriate,” said Southfield’s chief attorney, Jack Beras.

The city was right to remove it. Let these religious holiday displays to up at churches, synagogues and mosques where they belong. Leave the government out of it.


  1. #1 Les
    November 28, 2006

    Not so fast, Ed. Looks like Southfield has had a change of heart:

    By a 6-1 vote Monday, the Southfield City Council decided to allow a menorah and a nativity scene to join the holiday display on the City Hall lawn this season.

    Both are to be erected in time for next Monday’s tree lighting.

    But one of the first orders of business next year, the council decided, is to fashion a detailed policy about holiday displays so the city does not face charges later of favoring one religious faith over another and to comply with past court decisions.

    The menorah and creche will be privately owned and stored, according to law.

    Councilwoman Joan Seymour voted against allowing either religious symbol on city grounds, saying the decision was exclusionary and that, with the abundant number of religious institutions in Southfield, freedom of religious expression is not limited.

    So much for them doing the right thing.

  2. #2 MJ Memphis
    November 28, 2006

    Oh no, the War on Hannukah is underway! Someone alert Bill “Falafel” O’Reilly!

  3. #3 Mustafa Mond, FCD
    November 28, 2006

    Here’s another holiday display story:
    ‘Nativity’ booted from Ill. holiday fair

    CHICAGO – A public Christmas festival is no place for the Christmas story, the city says. Officials have asked organizers of a downtown Christmas festival, the German Christkindlmarket, to reconsider using a movie studio as a sponsor because it is worried ads for its film “The Nativity Story” might offend non-Christians.

    Somehow I suspect that attendees of a Christkindlmarket wouldn’t or shouldn’t be offended by Christian imagery.

  4. #4 BC
    November 28, 2006

    I think, MJ, that O’Reilly already knows about this. I saw a small bit of his show last night in which a guest (don’t know who) explained that a menorah is religious, but a creche isn’t. Bill O’Reilly said that of course a creche is not religious since it is part of the story of the birth of the very influential philosopher Jesus.

  5. #5 Ed Brayton
    November 28, 2006

    Thanks Les, I didn’t know that. I’ll be interested in seeing what the rules are that they come up with. I don’t understand what the difficulty is, the rules are so simple. All they have to do is create a designated public forum where community groups can put up their own displays and there’s no constitutional problem at all. As long as the government doesn’t pay for the displays or privilege one group with access to put them up, everything is fine.

  6. #6 Julia
    November 28, 2006

    Ed, I’d be interested in your comment on the Illinois holiday fair business linked to by Mustafa Mond above.

  7. #7 Mustafa Mond, FCD
    November 28, 2006

    O’Reilly said that of course a creche is not religious since it is part of the story of the birth of the very influential philosopher Jesus.

    Stop that, you’re scaring me. Admit that you just made that up.

  8. #8 Ed Brayton
    November 28, 2006


    I think the whole thing is rather silly. The sponsorship was paid for, thus there is no endorsement. If Toyota had bought it, no one would think that the city of Chicago was endorsing Toyota.

  9. #9 Julia
    November 28, 2006

    Just what I thought. In fact, it seemed so silly that I wondered if I was missing something.

  10. #10 Jon Krivitzky
    November 28, 2006

    Actually, Ed, for some reason a menorah has been legally deemed a secular symbol, like a Christmas tree.

    The Supreme Court decided that way in 1989 in County of Allegheny v. American Civil Liberties Union, Greater Pittsburgh Chapter.

    Personally, I don’t agree with the ruling, seeing it as basically a cop-out in the name of pluralism. A Christmas tree is decidedly secular, so the court determined that Jews needed an equally secular counterpart, and the menorah was the best choice.

    Kind of stupid, but there it is.

    Jon Krivitzky

  11. #11 raj
    November 29, 2006

    Come, come. There are two issues here (i) the propriety of the city buying the menorah, and (ii) the propriety of the city displaying–or allowing to be displayed–a religious symbol (regardless of who owns it) on city property.

    Regarding (i), apparently nobody considered the propiety of the purchase when it was made, and nobody objected to the purchase. That doesn’t mean that is was appropriate for the city to have purchased the menorah, but the question arises, what is the city to do with the object, now that it owns it? I suppose that the city could try to sell the thing, but it is highly unlikely that it would get anything close to the purchase price for it.

    Regarding (ii), it is fairly well known that a city can allow a religious symbol to be displayed on public property, with more than a few restrictions. I find it difficult to believe that the city would not be able to allow the menorah to be displayed on city property regardless of who owns it. And this goes for other religious symbols as well.

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