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It was touch and go last Friday afternoon, but Lansing Mayor Andy Schor succeeded in lighting a 9-foot menorah next to the state’s 61-foot state Christmas tree in front of the state Capitol during the Silver Bells in the City festivities.
Now the mayor is looking to feature a larger candelabra — contributed by a private citizen — next to the Christmas tree during the eight days of Hanukkah, starting Dec. 22. Whether that’s going to fly will likely be discussed Dec. 18 at a meeting of the state Capitol Commission, which by law oversees the Capitol grounds.
The issues here are many.
The Capitol Commission has rules on Capitol lawn displays. They can’t be taller than 4 feet. They must be taken down at night. Basically, the state doesn’t want a lot of large gaudy clutter. It also doesn’t want to be held responsible if a vandal tags something while on state property.
But if that’s the case, why the exception for the 61-foot conifer that clearly is a symbol for the Christian holiday of Christmas?
Next, is the property on which the massive evergreen sit on city right of way or state property? Because if it’s state property, why are city workers erecting the tree, trimming the tree and decorating the tree, Schor asks.
If it’s on city property, Schor argues he can put a menorah next to the tree if he wants.
The state says it has paperwork showing this small piece of concrete on the other side of the sideway is state property. It’s all part of the Capitol grounds.
Both sides are digging through their records for proof of their arguments.
In the meanwhile, there’s the whole freedom from religion argument. Is it appropriate to put a Jewish symbol for a religious holiday on government property?
Not surprisingly, the U.S. Supreme Court has looked into this very issue, but the results aren’t clear cut. In 1984, the court ruled a city-sponsored crèche in a public park did not violate the establishment clause because the display included other “secular” symbols.
Five years later, the court found that a Nativity scene in a county courthouse was “indisputably religious” because the display came with the banner “Gloria in Excelsis Deo.” And in 1995, the Court ruled the KKK could stick a cross in the Ohio statehouse plaza during the holiday season. In that case, though, Ohio allowed other religious symbols in the plaza. They just didn’t want the KKK’s cross.
Back in 2006 when the Michigan House passed a resolution in support of a state Christmas tree and menorah display, then-Michigan Jewish Conference Director Susan Herman said such a setup would be an inappropriate mix of church and state.
Today, Rahbi Asher Lopatin, executive director of the Jewish Community Relations Council of Metropolitan Detroit and the American Jewish Committee, is convinced there is an equity argument.
“If there’s going to be a Christmas tree — and it’s a wonderful, beautiful Christian symbol — we should be able to put up a dignified Jewish symbol, as well,” he said.
Schor, who is Jewish, agrees. That’s why he is pushing the issue, even though Capitol Facilities initially told him no.
Schor said state Facilities Manager Robert Blackwell told city workers last Friday, allegedly, with a couple of Capitol security personnel nearby, that if the menorah was kept near the tree, the state would confiscate it.
Once news of this got out, the Capitol Commission chairman, Gary Randall -- fearing a national story with Gov. Gretchen Whitmer being in Israel of all places -- quickly told Blackwell to leave the menorah alone.
The city’s 9-foot menorah didn’t stay near the tree for long. Once Silver Bells was over, city workers moved it back to City Hall. That specific menorah isn’t designed for prolonged outdoor exposure.
Since the lighting, Schor said he’s received overwhelming support from the community. Whether he’ll be open to more congratulations later in December is yet to be seen.
(Kyle Melinn, of the Capitol newsletter IRS, can be reached at email@example.com.)