In Chabad of Mid-Hudson Val. v. City of Poughkeepsie, a menorah display on the street corner in front of a privately owned building was the center of a constitutional lawsuit. The street corner location had been historic, however, in 2007, the City told plaintiffs they would have to move their menorah to a City-owned public lot. Plaintiffs sued under 42 USC §1983, claiming that the City’s conduct violated the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment of the United States Constitution. After the suit was commenced, a group of intervenors claimed that the use of the City’s labor and materials as well as municipal funds to set up the menorah display was a violation of the Establishment Clause, and as such the original complaint should be dismissed.
After a decision largely in favor of the plaintiffs, dismissing the intervenors contentions and ordering both the City and plaintiffs to appear for a conference to develop a uniform policy for all of the City holiday displays, the intervenors appealed. The Second Department, upon conducting an Establishment Clause analysis found, again, in favor of the Plaintiffs in that the display on the street corner against the backdrop of a privately owned large building did not send any message to a reasonable observer that the government was endorsing one particular religion. Rather the court considered that there were Christmas wreaths, lights and displays all over the downtown area, as well as a Christmas tree on the same block as the Menorah. The court described the scene as a celebration of religious diversity during the holiday season, rather than government endorsement of any particular religion. However, the Appellate Division did find, consistent with the intervenors contentions, that the City workers’ labor and the use of municipal funding toward the menorah display was a violation of the Establishment Clause.
Thanks to Alison Weintraub for her contribution to this post and Happy New Year to all those celebrating.