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.