The problems with the Lubavitch

Court battle against Lubavitch Menorahs in Poughkeepsie
December 17, 2008, 6:53 pm
Filed under: Real Estate, separation of church and state | Tags: ,

Judge lets menorah stay at city corner

By Larry Hertz • Poughkeepsie Journal • December 11, 2008

A large menorah that has been a part of holiday displays in downtown Poughkeepsie for the past two decades may be erected again this year at the

city’s main intersection, a judge ruled Wednesday.

The 22-foot symbol of the eight-day Jewish holiday of Hanukkah, owned by Town of Poughkeepsie Rabbi Yacov Borenstein, has been the subject of a yearlong court battle between the rabbi and city officials and four city residents.

The city and four intervenors in the lawsuit contended the use of city workers to help Borenstein erect and light the menorah during the eight days of Hanukkah constituted a violation of the principle of the separation of church and state.

The city enacted a policy last month permitting religious and nonreligious holiday displays to be placed only on a city-owned lot on Main Street, about 250 feet east of the Market Street intersection, where the menorah has been placed during holiday seasons since 1996. Under the new policy, the city would not help any group erect its displays.

But in his ruling, acting state Supreme Court Justice James D. Pagones said the rabbi could erect the menorah, with the city’s help, on the sidewalk at Main and Market streets – in part because the city traditionally uses public funds to put up wreaths and garlands on utility poles downtown and to decorate two Christmas trees on city-owned property. The judge said he considered such items to be primarily symbols of the Christian holiday of Christmas.

“If this court were to … exclude the eight-day display of a single menorah from the holiday celebration,” Pagones wrote in his 24-page decision, “the result would be that the principal effect of the holiday celebration would be to promote Christianity and inhibit Judaism without any rational basis, thereby violating the Establishment Clause (of the Constitution).”

Mayor will consult

City Mayor John Tkazyik said he planned to consult with the corporation counsel’s office to consider whether to appeal Pagones’ ruling.

“This decision leaves the city with two very unacceptable choices,” Tkazyik said. “One, to continue the practice of using city resources and funds to travel out of town to a private property and put up a privately owned religious symbol, then participate in religious ceremonies during the duration of Hanukkah; and two, to remove all lights and holiday displays on public property in the city.”

Tkazyik said the judge’s decision appeared to imply the city’s annual holiday celebration, called the Festival of Lights, “is suddenly illegal.”

“The people of this city I represent should be upset by the choice the court has left us with,” the mayor said. “This city could use a bit of cheerfulness.”

Poughkeepsie attorney Jack Economou, who represented the four city residents who intervened on the city’s behalf, could not be reached for comment Wednesday.

Borenstein said he was pleased with Pagones’ ruling, saying he believed it was consistent with the message of Hanukkah.

“The menorah is a symbol of religious freedom, and the concept of Hanukkah is to add more light to the world,” he said. “I hope this ruling will bring peace and unity to the community and to the world at large.”

According to Jewish scripture in the Talmud, the lighting of the menorah stems from a conflict more than 2,000 years ago between Jews and a Syrian ruler who attempted to prevent Jews from practicing their religion.

Smaller menorahs planned

Borenstein said the menorah he places in downtown Poughkeepsie every December is certainly the largest of such symbols his organization, Chabad Lubavitch, owns. But he said the group planned to erect about 40 smaller menorahs at other public and private sites, such as shopping malls, in Dutchess, Ulster and Orange counties when Hanukkah begins Dec. 21.

The dispute over the menorah began November 2007 when city officials informed Borenstein they would not help him erect it or light it, citing concerns about the separation of church and state. But Pagones issued a temporary injunction directing city workers to erect the menorah and provide a “cherry picker” truck to enable the rabbi to light it each evening of Hanukkah.

After Borenstein went to court seeking to make Pagones’ order permanent, the city and the four city residents represented by Economou then filed papers opposing Borenstein’s request.

Reach Larry Hertz at or 845-437-4824.


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