A state appellate court has held that the City of Poughkeepsie could place an 18-foot menorah in the downtown business district near a Christmas tree and a display of the Muslim faith. But the court also holds that the City cannot use public money and labor for the nightly menorah lighting.
The case is Chabad of Mid-Hudson Valley v. City of Poughkeepsie, decided by the Appellate Division, Second Department, on August 31. You don't see too many Establishment Clause cases filed in state court, particularly in Dutchess County. These cases are usually brought in federal court.
This Section 1983 action involves the overly complex questions of whether the public display of religious symbols and lights violates the separation of church and state. The City wins on the claim that placing the large menorah on public property violates the First Amendment. Under the Supreme Court's crazy quilt of Establishment Clause legal standards, the plaintiff has to show that the menorah represented an endorsement of religion.
In context, the menorah does not represent such an endorsement because the public sidewalk location is in front of a privately-owned building and also near the Civic Center Plaza, also privately-owned. While the menorah is quite large, "it is set against the 'neutralizing secular background' of the five-story, commercial, and privately owned Barney Building. The City also wins the case because garlands, wreaths and white lights are nearby. Although these decorations go up for the Christmas season, believe it or not, the Supreme Court has held that these things, like Christmas trees, "typify the secular celebration of Christmas." Further negating any inference that the government is endorsing the Jewish holiday is the presence of a display of the Muslim faith in the form of a star and crescent. This is the kind of "big picture" analysis that favors the government in Establishment Clause cases.
But the City loses on a secondary claim. It is not allowed to use public money and employees for the nightly menorah lighting, even if private actors reimburse the City for these expenses. This fosters "the perception of an unconstitutional excessive government entanglement with religion."