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Talks Break Down in Dispute Over Display of Menorah in Park : Religion: Opposing Jewish groups are headed to court again in a Beverly Hills controversy that began in 1986.

November 23, 1991|MATHIS CHAZANOV | TIMES STAFF WRITER

It looked as though a compromise was in the works, but the talks broke down last week amid charges of insincerity and double-dealing that recalled the difficult atmosphere of the recent Mideast peace talks in Madrid.

"They did not agree to real peace," said one advocate. "I am disappointed and angered, though not surprised," said someone from the other side.

But this fight was not about Jerusalem. It was about a strip of Beverly Hills parkland where one Jewish organization is determined to display a 28-foot-high Hanukkah menorah and another is just as adamantly opposed.

It now appears that Chabad, an organization of ultra-Orthodox Jews, and four Jewish residents represented by the American Jewish Congress and the American Civil Liberties Union had reached an agreement. But they are headed back to court in a dispute that started in 1986.

The two sides met for months this year in settlement negotiations presided over by U. S. Magistrate-Judge Volney Brown. As recently as Nov. 13, they agreed to move the menorah two blocks west, out of sight of the Beverly Hills Civic Center and the Crescent Station post office.

While satisfactory to no one, this would have made a trial unnecessary and helped to answer the objections of the four residents who do not want to see any religious symbols, Jewish or otherwise, in their parks. They had argued that the display in Beverly Gardens Park, across the street from public buildings, violated the separation of church and state.

"Our concern was that it inevitably gave off the impression of government endorsement," said attorney Douglas E. Mirell of the American Jewish Congress.

But the talks broke down, apparently over a requirement for a three-year cease-fire in the legal battle.

"To us it did not sound like peace," said Chabad's attorney, Jeffrey G. Kichaven. "They wanted to be able to move the conflict from the courtroom to the City Council."

For now, Chabad is going ahead with plans to exhibit the menorah, a nine-armed candelabrum commemorating the victory of ancient Jews over Syrian-Greek domination, in its old location, between Canon and Crescent drives on Santa Monica Boulevard.

The Beverly Hills City Council decided Tuesday night to allow Chabad to proceed, with the understanding that city workers will light up a a nearby tree to make it look like a Christmas tree, as suggested bS. District Judge Terry J. Hatter Jr. last year.

It is now up to Chabad's opponents to decide whether to go back to court and try to persuade Hatter that the illumination of that particular Monterey cypress would fail to meet the standards set by the U. S. Supreme Court in a dispute between Allegheny County in Pennsylvania and the ACLU.

In that 1989 case, the court found that the display of a menorah, a Christmas tree and a sign hailing liberty would be acceptable in the city-county building in Pittsburgh.

"The Christmas tree alone . . . does not endorse Christian belief," the court ruled. Displaying a tree and the menorah together did not result in the simultaneous endorsement of Christianity and Judaism, the court found.

In Pittsburgh, the tree and the menorah were inches apart. In Beverly Gardens Park, the distance is 50 feet, Chabad's opponents argue.

Time is running out, however. With Thanksgiving making for a short week and Hanukkah starting on the evening of Dec. 1, the opponents have only a few days to seek a temporary restraining order.

Steven Kaplan, a vice president of the southwest region of the American Jewish Congress, said the case against Chabad will go forward in U.S. District Court this spring.

the case against Chabad will go forward in U.S. District Court this spring.

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