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Op-Ed: A Ruling that Lubavitchers Should Celebrate

by Elimelech Silberberg

The lead story of the May 6 edition of the New York Times began by saying “In a major decision on the role of religion in government, the Supreme Court on Monday ruled that the Constitution allows town boards to start their sessions with sectarian prayers.” In writing for the majority, Justice Anthony Kennedy said that the prayers did not violate the Constitution because they were ceremonial and served to signal the solemnity of the occasion.

As expected, in its editorial the NY Times slammed the decision, calling it a “Defeat for Religious Neutrality.” The Times contends, “In a lamentable ruling on Monday the Supreme Court’s conservative majority brushed past those core values (which forbid government from favoring any particular religion) to allow the town of Greece, in upstate New York, to begin its town hall meetings with a sectarian prayer…”

The issue of the parameters of the Establishment Clause, which prohibits the government from establishing any particular religion, has for years been contested among constitutional experts, with some saying that this prohibits any public display of religion on government property, while others contend that the Constitution only prohibits displays that would favor one religion over an other.

In many of his Sichos Kodesh the Rebbe clearly embraced the viewpoint that there is nothing in the Constitution prohibiting public displays of religion, provided that no religion is given preferential treatment. Based on this, the Rebbe promoted the idea of public Menorah displays on government property. The Rebbe clearly felt that a G-dless society is a greater danger to the public than a society which allows for symbols of various religions.

In some instances Shluchim have met with fierce opposition, especially from Jewish organizations who view Menorahs on government property as a violation of the Establishment Clause. Some shluchim have succeeded in putting up Menorahs despite the opposition by claiming that a Menorah is not a religious symbol.

I believe that the recent decision of the Supreme Court to some extent accepts the Rebbe’s understanding of the Constitution. It should be easier now for shluchim to put Menorahs on government property, with the argument that it is a ceremony that serves to signal a festive period on the calendar. There is of course precedent in the USA that December is a festive month.

How this will impact other issues like school prayer remains to be seen, but in the meantime I believe that there is reason for celebration for chassidim of the Rebbe.

The author is a Shliach in West Bloomfield, Michigan, and a member of the Central Committee of Chabad-Lubavitch Rabbis.

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  • 1. Keep voting for Dems, Crown Heights! wrote:

    All of these hot-button Supreme Court rulings are one conservative vacancy away from being overturned.

  • 2. Yiddel wrote:

    Indeed! I wonder why no one else is talking about this decision–it’s really a huge victory!

  • 4. Aron Frank wrote:

    This goes a long way for the Rebbe’s wishes.
    This is much better that a moment of silence.

  • 5. Tsugin wrote:

    The Rebbe’s positive view of public religious celebration is really very different than what happened here. This ruling is actually very troublesome for anyone who holds minority religious beliefs.

    Public menorah lighting is about the government allowing private individuals and groups to share their beliefs and traditions. It shows acceptance, openness, and tolerance to all community members to express themselves and their beliefs without fear. It means that all are welcome to be an active, public part of the community, including those people with strong religious beliefs, whatever they may be.

    Importantly, public Menorah lightings do not suggest that the government itself endorses, promotes, or encourages any particular religion. Everyone can believe and live their beliefs, but the government does not (and should not) offer any comment on which beliefs are more acceptable than others. The government protects the broad freedom of religion and speech by providing an open, accessible-to-all platform that anyone can use to express and share.

    In this case, the town government regularly started their official duties with an almost exclusively and explicitly Christian prayer. They effectively told all who came to interact with the government that it was a Christian body and would make decisions guided by Christian beliefs. Imagine being in the crowd, preparing to ask the council to, say, set up a public Menorah, and hearing that the government found inspiration from “the saving sacrifice of JC on the cross.” Would you feel comfortable standing before such a council? Now imagine that every time some local government body started every meeting asking for the Rebbe to guide them and show them brachos in accordance with the Torah and Hashem’s promise of Moshiach in Israel. A member of the community is there to ask to open a mosque on Utica Avenue. Would that person feel comfortable? Would that person feel that the decision would be made without regard for his or her personal religious beliefs?

    In nearly all of the US (and the world!), we as Jews are as vulnerable as that mosque-seeker. Remember that the government wields the political power, so the potential for abuse–by a majority against any minority–is great. Allowing a governmental body to so explicitly evoke their religious beliefs has a real consequence of chilling, not promoting, the free and equal exercise of religion.

    • 6. Andrea Schonberger wrote:

      Right on! Would you consider running for president? You have my vote!

    • 7. Thank you! wrote:

      Prayers in small town council meetings always favor the majority religion. If you are of a different religion, you are made to feel like a second class citizen. The Founding Fathers were right. Keep religion and government apart.
      Rulings that protect the minority- whether it is religion or race- are almost always thanks to the liberal judges. You may not like rulings that favor blacks, gays, criminals, etc., but in the long run those same rulings benefit Jews, too.

  • 8. to #4. Aron Frank wrote:

    While I think this decision is very good,

    A moment of silence is a totally different matter. The way I understand the point of ‘A Moment of Silence’ is that children / students should have ingrained in them – from a young age – their formative years – that there is a higher being who watches over them and that this world is not a jungle.

    This will bring them to be much better adults. Avoid a lot of people becoming criminals…

  • 10. shaliach wrote:

    The news outlets that carried the case reported that the town contended that the reason the prayers were sectarian was because only Chriistians were interested in participating.
    Apparently the court accepted their contention

  • 11. declasse' intelectual wrote:

    Let us get the record straight as this is one of the most misunderstood parts about the Constitution.
    The primary reason that that this clause came into being was that the founders of this country did not want one religion dominating the beliefs of the people and telling them what was what as was done in England and France where most of the founders came from or had intellectual heritages.
    Now, that said, if you read the debates and the private letters of those who authored the Constitution you will find their strong belief in the practical, moral and ethical principles and benefits that religion should provide. They went even as so far (some of the authors in the private correspondence) to advocate that people who would serve in government should have a strong moral and ethical fiber based on their participation in the religious life of their community. But, no where did they advocate any one religion over the other. What was the famous story about the former surgeon-general, Koop, who had to separate conjoined twins–he spent the night fasting and praying before the surgery.
    As for the NEW YORK TIMES, the left wing liberalism attacks anything that does not conform to their agenda that attacks individualism and self-expression.
    The issue was that there is no synagogue in that town-it would be an issue if a Jewish representative was denied actively the opportunity to give a non-partisan invocation. After all, do they not do that for Congress, many state houses and the inaguration of the President.

  • 12. Anonymous wrote:

    This is the dumbest article ever. Here you have someone who is not trained as a lawyer discussing a legal case that he does not begin to understand. Public menorahs and non-denominational prayer in school is one thing. This decision was about something else altogether that Lubavitchers should not be happy about. This decision allows town hall meeting involving active participation ordinary citizens (in other words, you and me and all other Lubavitchers) to start with non-Jewish prayers that clearly discuss and mention the names and concepts of Avodah Zarah. Next time your Chabad House wants a zoning variance and you are in the town hall hearing asking for the variance, are you just going to stand silently with your head bowed while the priest mentions and praises “you know who”. Are you going to walk out?

  • 14. avi wrote:

    why can`t we for once say that “all jews should celebrate”?

  • 15. I don't get it wrote:

    I think that having one religion offer a prayer in a public venue is inappropriate, unless one of two things set a precedent: a practice to invite a member from a different religion or sect within a religion in as fair a way as possible, or put out a general invitation to clergy of all faiths to decide on a schedule. Public is public! Public does not mean private! Public means all of us! If one is a citizen, one is part of the public. Therefore, one needs to be included in the paradigm. The shortsightedness of the majority in this country is beyond my understanding! I think some folks must walk a mile in others’ shoes before they announce their so-called public practices. And some wonder why others want to live in Israel and maintain a Jewish state! Maybe until non Jewish people become aware and sensitive to such one-sided actions and thoughts, we need to think about that!

  • 16. Nat Lewin wrote:

    Very interesting article in the AMI magazine this past week where attorney Nathan (Nat) Lewin voices his strong support of this ruling, he addresses many of the concerns voiced in the comments here.


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