TALLAHASSEE, FL — Saying it is ”fundamental” to freedom to be able to display ”religious symbols,” Gov. Charlie Crist has quietly placed a boxed Jewish scroll on the door leading into his formal Capitol office.
Crist put up the mezuzah — a portion of sacred Jewish parchment contained inside a case — with the help of Rabbi Schneur Oirechman, director of Chabad-Lubavitch of the Panhandle. The mezuzah was a gift from House Majority Leader Adam Hasner, a Delray Beach Republican, who gave it to Crist, who is not Jewish, while he was on a trade mission to Israel last May.
Crist’s action has drawn the ire of the American Civil Liberties Union, which said Monday it is wrong for the governor to put up any religious symbol in such a public place.
”A religious symbol is a religious symbol, whether it’s Christian, Jewish or Muslim,” said Howard Simon, executive director of the Florida chapter of the ACLU. “People have the right to put religious symbols on their own property; government’s job is to stay neutral. I think what the governor has done is mistakenly given the imprimatur of state government endorsement to a Jewish religious symbol.”
Crist said in response that he is “celebrating the diversity that is Florida: many religions, many people, many opportunities.”
There have been several high-pitched battles over the placement of religious symbols or documents in government buildings in recent years, including a battle over whether the Ten Commandments could be placed inside state buildings in Alabama, Kentucky and Texas. The U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 2005 that framed copies of the Ten Commandments could not be placed on a courthouse wall in Kentucky but approved a Texas monument because it was placed next to other historical markers.
When Crist put up the mezuzah last week, he issued a statement to Jewish media outlets.
”Being able to display religious symbols is just as fundamental as being able to practice your religious beliefs,” the statement said. “I am honored to display a mezuzah on my door. The freedoms and ideals that make our country great are the same ideals that people all over world seek every day.”
Many other top state officials, including House Speaker Marco Rubio, have some religious symbols in their offices. Rubio has a small wooden cross that Crist bought for him while he was in Israel. Some state senators have placed copies of the Ten Commandments in their offices.
”It’s the backbone for the laws in our country,” said State Sen. Steven Wise, a Jacksonville Republican and a Baptist, who added he has no problem with Crist putting up the mezuzah. “It’s a free country. You can do what you want.”
Added Sen. Ronda Storms, a Brandon Republican: “The Constitution gives us the freedom of religion, not the freedom from religion.”
But the ACLU’s Simon drew a distinction between someone putting up something inside their legislative office and on the door frame leading into the governor’s office.
”This is a not like a personal expression of somebody having a religious statue on their desk,” Simon said. “I think he made a mistake.”