NEW YORK – Jewish presidential hopeful Bernie Sanders doesn’t talk much about his Jewish background, but his involvement in a Vermont case may have had a significant role in the 1989 US Supreme Court decision to allow Hanukka menorahs to be displayed on public property across the US, research conducted recently by Chabad- Lubavitch reveals.
In the 1980s and early 1990s, Chabad-Lubavitch emissaries introducing public menorah displays faced opponents claiming that the Jewish displays violated the US Constitution’s separation of church and state clause. Defenders argued that the menorahs were protected as a matter of freedom of speech and freedom to practice one’s religion.
The cases were taken to court.
One of these disagreements occurred in Burlington, Vermont, during Sanders’s term as mayor from 1981 to 1989.
In December 1983, Chabad emissaries to Vermont Rabbis Yitzchak and Zeesy Raskin, approached Sanders’s office and requested permission to light an 8-foot-high menorah on the steps of city hall.
Raskin then invited Sanders to light the menorah, which he accepted, the research conducted by Chabad.org’s associate editor Dovid Margolin found.
Three years later, the Chabad emissaries asked permission to allow a 16-foot-tall menorah to be erected annually in Burlington’s City Hall Park during all eight days of Hanukka.
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The Sanders administration welcomed these requests, and granted full permission, but was immediately confronted by the American Civil Liberties Union that complained the menorah in a public space violated the Establishment Clause of the US Consitutuion, which prohibits placing religious symbols on public property if it results in promoting religion.
Sanders asked then-city attorney Joseph McNeil to review the issue. McNeil responded to Sanders on December 5, 1986, attaching a legal opinion written by attorney Art Cernosia who wrote: “... Based on the [US Court of Appeals for the] Second Circuit case, it is my opinion that there is no legal bar for the City of Burlington to allow a menorah to be erected in the city’s park. I would recommend that the city require a prominent disclaimer sign to be posted by the display.”
The ACLU was not pleased and threatened to file suit against the City of Burlington.
The New York Times, in an article, dated December 20, 1987, quotes the executive director of the ACLU’s Vermont chapter, saying that “such religious symbols should not be displayed in front of public buildings, because they give the impression of government endorsement of religion.”
McNeil is quoted explaining that city hall had received “some unfortunate calls suggesting that, because the governor [Madeleine Kunin] and the mayor [Sanders] are both Jewish, we might be more inclined to allow a menorah than a creche.
“It is not because the governor and the mayor are Jewish that the menorah is in the park,” McNeil said.
ACLU and activists decided to go through with filing a suit against the city in June 1988. Sanders and his administration chose to vigorously defend their position in court despite much opposition.
In correspondence retrieved by Chabad.org, Rev. Paul Bortz urged Bernie Sanders to drop the case. Bortz wrote: “Come on mayor Sanders, let’s drop the idea of any religious symbol being displayed on any government property.
The whole idea is an extraordinary waste of taxpayers’ money. Or are you billing Lubavitch of Vermont for legal fees?” But days before Hanukka 1988, US District Judge Franklin S. Billings Jr. ruled in favor of the Burlington menorah, the Times reported.
Sanders and his administration’s involvement in the case contributed to opening the path for the US Supreme Court decision in the Allegheny v. American Civil Liberties Union case in which the court considered the constitutionality of two recurring holiday displays located on public property.
The Chabad-Lubavitch research showed Sanders had expressed, back in the 1980s, strong admiration for Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, the last Lubavitcher Rebbe, who died in 1994.
Sanders joined the national Education Day held annually on Schneerson’s Hebrew birthday, and proclaimed Education Day in Burlington in honor of the rabbi’s 81st birthday in 1983 and 83rd birthday in 1985. Schneerson wrote a letter, retrieved by Chabad.org, to thank Sanders for the decision.
In the letter, addressed to “The Honorable Bernard Sanders,” the rabbi wrote: “I sincerely appreciate your thoughtfulness in designating this Education Day in honor of my birthday. I trust that your action will stimulate greater awareness of the vital importance of education, not only among all your worthy citizens, but also in the State of Vermont.”
Sanders became the first Jew to win a US presidential contest on Tuesday night, as he obtained the majority of the votes in the New Hampshire Democratic primary.
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