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The Jerusalem Post
Jewish Presidential hopeful and Democratic New Hampshire primaries winner Bernie Sanders doesn’t talk much about his Jewish background but his involvement with a Vermont case about public Chanukah displays, may have had a significant role in the 1989 US Supreme Court decision to allow Chanukah Menorahs to be displayed on public property countrywide.
In the 1980s and early 1990s, Chabad-Lubavitch emissaries introducing the public Menorah were faced with opponents claiming that the Jewish displays violated the separation of church and state. Defenders argued that the Menorahs were protected as a matter of freedom of speech and freedom to practice one’s religion. The cases were taken to court.
One of these disagreements occurred in Burlington, Vermont during Bernie Sanders’ term as mayor of the city from 1981 to 1989. In December of 1983, Chabad-Lubavitch emissaries to Vermont Rabbi Yitzchak & Zeesy Raskin, approached Mayor Sanders’ office and requested permission to light a large 8-foot Menorah on the steps of City Hall. Rabbi Raskin then extended an invitation to Mayor Sanders to light the menorah, which he accepted.
Three years later, in 1986, the Chabad emissaries asked permission to allow a 16-foot tall menorah to be erected in Burlington’s City Hall Park during all eight days of Chanukah yearly.
The Sanders administration welcomed these requests, and granted full permission, but was immediately confronted by the American Civil Liberties Union who complained the Menorah in a public space violated federal laws of the separation of church and state, also known as the Establishment Clause, which prohibits placing religious symbols on public property if it results in promoting religion.
Following the complaint, Sanders asked City Attorney at the time Joseph McNeil to review the issue. McNeil responded to Sanders on December 5, 1986, attaching a legal opinion written by attorney Art Cernosia who wrote: “… Based on the Second Circuit case, it is my opinion that there is no legal bar for the City of Burlington to allow a menorah to be erected in the City’s park. I would recommend that the City require a prominent disclaimer sign to be posted by the display.”
The ACLU was not pleased by the decision to display the menorah and threatened to file suit against the City of Burlington, which caught the attention of the New York Times.
The article dated December 20, 1987 quotes Executive Director of the Vermont chapter of the civil liberties organization, saying that ”such religious symbols should not be displayed in front of public buildings because they give the impression of government endorsement of religion.”
Burlington’s City Attorney McNeil is also quoted explaining that the City Hall had received “some unfortunate calls suggesting that, because the Governor [Madeleine Kunin] and the Mayor [Sanders] are both Jewish, we might be more inclined to allow a Menorah than a creche.”
“’It is not because the governor and the mayor are Jewish that the menorah is in the park,’ Mr. McNeil said.
ACLU and activists decided to go through with filing a suit against the city in June of 1988 over the conflict. Sanders and his administration chose to vigorously defend their position in court despite much opposition.
In a correspondence retrieved by Chabad.org, Rev. Paul Bortz urged Bernie Sanders to drop the case. Bortz wrote: “Come on Mayor Sanders, let’s drop the idea of any religious symbol being displayed on any government property. The whole idea is an extraordinary waste of taxpayers’ money. Or are you billing Lubavitch of Vermont for legal fees?”
But days before Chanukah 1988, US District Judge Franklin S. Billings, Jr. ruled in favor of the Burlington Menorah, The New York Times reported.
Bernie Sanders’ and his administration’s deep involvement in the case contributed to opening the path for the US Supreme Court decision in the Allegheny v. American Civil Liberties Union case in which the Court considered the constitutionality of two recurring holiday displays located on public property.
In addition to his fight for the menorah display, Bernie Sanders had expressed strong admiration for the Rebbe.
Sanders joined the national “Education Day” proclaimed annually on the date of the Rebbe’s Jewish calendric birthdate, and proclaimed Education Day in Burlington in honor of the Rebbe’s 81st birthday in 1983 and 83rd birthday in 1985.
The Rebbe wrote a letter to thank Sanders for the decision.
In the letter, addressed to “The Honorable Bernard Sanders” the Rebbe wrote: “I sincerely appreciate your thoughtfulness in designating this Education Day in honor of my birthday. I trust that your action will stimulate greater awareness of the vital importance of education, not only among all your worthy citizens, but also in the State of Vermont.”
Bernie Sanders was the first ever Jew to win a presidential contest on Tuesday night, as he obtained the majority of the Democratic votes in the New Hampshire primaries.