Beverly Hills City Council members may never agree on whether a Hanukkah menorah is a religious symbol or a secular sign, but in their city, it will always have a home during the holidays.
The council, after a rigorous three-hour debate Tuesday, agreed to allow the display of a huge Jewish menorah in Beverly Gardens. After voting 3 to 2 to approve a permit request by Chabad Lubavitch, an Orthodox Jewish group, to put up the 28-foot-high-menorah, the council said it would make the public display of a Christmas tree and the menorah official city policy unless Beverly Hills residents object to the action.
The religious-symbols issue has been particularly divisive in Beverly Hills since the all-Jewish council has had to grapple with competing interests of various Jewish groups. The mainstream American Jewish Congress has continually opposed the public display of religious symbols, whereas the Chabad group has vehemently pushed for the public placement of the candelabrum as a demonstration of the Jewish faith.
The U.S. Supreme Court ruled last year that a menorah, like a Christmas tree, is a secular symbol that can be publicly displayed without violating constitutional bans on governmental endorsement of religions. However, council members Maxwell Salter and Vicki Reynolds said they still questioned the appropriateness of putting such symbols on public display.
"No one is going to tell me that a menorah is not a religious symbol," said Reynolds. "And I am concerned about government getting involved in the business of displaying religious symbols."
Councilman Robert Tanenbaum disagreed, and cited a long list of court cases that upheld a city's right to place such symbols in public parks. The Beverly Hills menorah will be on display on Santa Monica Boulevard between Beverly and Canon drives from Dec. 6 until Dec. 20. Hanukkah starts at sundown Dec. 11 and ends Dec. 19.
"The bottom line is that the (U.S. Supreme) Court has spoken on this issue," he said. "If a menorah is secular and the court has said that it is, then why should we deprive them of that which is legal?"
Although he questioned whether the large menorah was out of scale with the surrounding park, Mayor Allan Alexander cast the swing vote in favor of the public display because he said it was unfair to deny the application at such a late date.
The traditional holiday displays have been on view in city parks in recent years, but the council did not settle the issue permanently until this week. Alexander said the council should consider selecting specific sites for holiday symbols, but the idea was rejected by a council majority.
City officials said they would not support applications to display a cross, since the courts have ruled that a cross violates the separation of church and state since it is an overt religious symbol bearing clear associations with Christian theology.
Attorney Marshall Grossman, representing the Chabad group, told the council that when officials in San Diego recently decided to remove all religious symbols from public display in Balboa Park, there was immediate public outcry from both Jewish and Christian groups. Grossman said that to deny the public display of a Christmas tree and menorah in Beverly Hills "would sow the seeds of dissension in this community."
"You have decorations on Wilshire Boulevard, . . . and when I see a Christmas tree, when I see a Santa Claus, and when I see a Madonna and angels, I think of the Christian religion," he said. "The menorah issue is no different, and I think the community would overwhelmingly support it."