Routt County says ‘no’ to menorah on the lawn in front of historic downtown Steamboat courthouse
Steamboat Springs — The Jewish community Har Mishpacha in Steamboat Springs began looking Tuesday for an alternative place to display a dramatic new menorah created by Randy Salky after Routt County government decided not to allow the religious symbol that is part of the “Celebration of Light” in the Jewish faith on the courthouse lawn during the eight days of Hanukkah, Dec. 16 to 24.
“It’s apparent that it won’t happen this year, but I look forward to talking to you about it more in the future. … We will probably continue to have a display, but it will be somewhere else in town,” Har Mishpacha Board President Bert Halberstadt said after commission Chairman Tim Corrigan told him the county consistently has avoided permitting religious displays on the courthouse lawn.
Corrigan told Halberstadt that he and Commissioner Steve Ivancie (Commissioner Doug Monger was absent) agreed Monday to support a decision by County Manager Tom Sullivan, who has authority over county facilities, not to approve the menorah.
Halberstadt spoke during a time slot Tuesday reserved for public comment, but the issue of the request to display the menorah came up during Sullivan’s regular Monday update to the commissioners.
“It would have been better had you been here” Monday, Corrigan said.
Halberstadt said a growing number of Colorado communities are incorporating menorah displays in their community celebrations of the December holidays.
That trend was confirmed Tuesday by Rabbi Levi Brackman, of Evergreen, where that community will celebrate its 10th annual Community Festival of Lights event Dec. 20 with community members and local dignitaries signing candles on the menorah.
“When we started doing this event a decade ago it was a first for Evergreen, now it has become something that the entire community joins in with and supports,” Brackman wrote in an email. “We are so delighted to have so much community support for an event that literally lights up and unites the community during the holiday season.”
Sullivan said Monday that after being contacted by Steamboat businessman and Har Mishpacha member Les Liman, he researched the menorah to confirm that it is a religious symbol and consulted with County Attorney John Merrill on the matter. Sullivan said he told Liman that the county consistently has not allowed religious displays on the courthouse lawn. Sullivan also said that in his view, because the holiday lights on the trees on the courthouse lawn remain there until the end of the ski season, they are seasonal decorations and secular — not religious symbols.
The county also permits a “Santa Claus hut” maintained by several business people on the courthouse lawn. Another example of county cooperation with the religious community here is a large green “Where to Worship” sign on the courthouse lawn at the corner of Lincoln Avenue and Sixth Street that informs visitors of all faiths where they can attend services.
Sullivan added that the Routt County Clerk and Recorder’s Office staff somewhat regretfully removed an angel from the top of its office Christmas tree recently to render it secular.
Other members of Har Mishpacha said after the meeting at the courthouse that they have no intention of filing a civil suit seeking to compel the county to permit the display of the menorah, nor do they want to see their request result in any existing holiday displays removed from the courthouse lawn. But they did note that in their view, the brightly lit evergreens on the courthouse lawn are perceived by the community as “Christmas trees.”
“It’s a Christmas tree, but I’m not offended by it,” Linda Liman said. “The menorah is part of the celebration of the festival of light, we have no desire to make an issue of this. Never, never would we want the trees to go away.”
“It’s not the board’s intent to pursue it legally,” Joella West said.
Instead, Halberstadt said after the meeting: “We see this as a convergence of two good things. One is that this is the right thing to do in this holiday season of goodwill and diversity. Second, it’s doing what we see as being legal.”
County Attorney Merrill told the commissioners Monday that his review of case law led him to conclude that the U.S. Supreme Court “has not provided any helpful direction” with regard to the facts it relied upon to decide a variety of cases regarding religious displays.
Speaking to Merrill’s point, the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life reports: “In reaching these decisions (about holiday displays) the Supreme Court has relied heavily on a close examination of the particular history and context of each display and has largely sidestepped setting clear rules that would assist lower courts in deciding future cases.”
Halberstadt said his review of case law tells him judges have concluded that when nonsecular religious symbols are intermingled with secular holiday symbols “from Frosty the Snowman to lights on a tree, they have a basis in religion, but in context, dealt with as a community display of goodwill of the holiday season,” they are not in violation of the establishment clause of the First Amendment prohibition against government favoring one religion over another.
Halberstadt’s remarks correspond to a 5-4 1984 decision by the Supreme Court involving a private citizen’s suit against the city of Pawtucket, Rhode Island, over its sponsorship of holiday decorations that included a manger scene portraying the birth of Christ as well as Santa Claus and other symbols portraying the non-religious celebration of Christmas.
The Pew Forum concluded that it was not the majority opinion of Chief Justice Warren Burger that history remembers but rather the concurring opinion of Justice Sandra Day O’Connor. She concluded that because the creche scene was featured in context with a Santa Claus statue and other secular holiday images, “a reasonable person would not see the creche as a government endorsement of Christianity” but as part of a holiday celebration that has secular and nonsecular significance.