Sunday, September 18, 2011

Star of David outside Town Hall?

Should a religious ceremony be permitted to take place on township property? On September 8, Connecticut politician Lee Whitnum (D) filed a lawsuit in Bridgeport federal court against the town of Greenwich, CT for allowing a Bar Mitzvah, scheduled to coincide with Israeli Independence Day, to take place in Town Hall. Local politician Peter Tesei is also named as a defendant in the case. The lawsuit charges that the ceremony and the flying of the Israeli flag featuring a Star of David outside the town hall violated the Establishment Clause.

In response, Tesei defended the township by asserting that the flags of many other countries, such as France, Italy, and Sweden, are flown on culturally significant days. He argues that the display of the Israeli national flag was no different than any of these. He also points out that the United Jewish Appeal (UJA) Federation paid the custodial fees required to clean up during and after the event. The Executive Director of the UDA Federation of Greenwich, Pamela Ehrenkranz, argued that Israeli Independence Day is not a religious event, and that the Bar Mitzvah held that day did not feature some religious prayers and blessings that would ordinarily be said. However, Whitnum disagrees, as Israel describes itself as a Jewish State.

The group than ran this event essentially rented the facilities, as they paid the custodial fees. And Tesei does make a good point that other cultural events are held at the hall without issue. If the party had merely been a celebration of Israeli independence, then I don’t think there is any problem with the Establishment Clause, even though the Israeli flag being flown for the day features a Star of David. However, because the Bar Mitzvah was held as well, I think that makes this a religious event even if certain prayers were omitted. I’m not Jewish so I don’t know if this is an apples-to-apples comparison, but I have a hard time imagining a secularized baptism. If my analogy holds, then a Bar Mitzvah couldn’t be secularized either – by its nature it is a religious event.

That being said, whether or not this event violated the Establishment Clause depends on whether or not other religious groups are allowed to hold events at the town hall in my opinion. I agree with Rob Boston, spokesman for Americans United for Separation of Church and State, who was quoted later in the article. He essentially said that either everyone has access to state facilities or no one has access – the township cannot allow one religious group to rent facilities but deny access to another. As long as the township doesn’t favor one religion over another for using its space, I don’t believe this is establishment.

The event held at town hall was religious; I have no doubts about that. But as long as the township isn’t playing favorites as to which groups can hold ceremonies at town hall, I don’t think there is a problem. If the township has space and the religious groups are willing to pay to use it, why shouldn’t they be allowed?


Harry R. said...

I agree with Grant's point that a secularized baptism or bar mitzvah seems unlikely to exist. The event is inherently religious and as such should not be held within a town hall. However, even though the Israeli flag was displayed during this ceremony, the ceremony itself does not give religious meaning to the flag. The flag is a national image which does not have any inherent religious meaning. Simply because Israel is a Jewish state does not prohibit displaying the flag any more than it would any purely secular nation.

David P said...

I agree with Harry in that the flag in itself is not necessarily religious, as it is a national flag for an acknowledged and legitimate country. The Bar Mitzvah, on the other hand, should not occur in a public place. Not being Jewish either, I am unsure of how feasible it is to create a secularized version of the ceremony. The building may allow ceremonies associated with other religions as well, which does help the case that this is not an example of establishment, but I feel the public property should not be used for any religious ceremonies at all.
It seems to me that the flag and ceremony are unrelated, and thus should not be considered together.