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Menorah can be displayed at government plaza in Cincinnati, High Court says. (People & Events).

A downtown plaza in Cincinnati is a public forum for free speech and government officials may not bar the display of religious symbols by private groups them, a Supreme Court justice ruled in December.

Acting on a request for an emergency ruling, Justice John Paul Stevens held that city officials must allow Chabad of Southern Ohio to display a menorah in Fountain Plaza. Shortly after the ruling, the group erected an 18-foot-high menorah.

City officials had earlier passed an ordinance barring all displays at the plaza from the last two weeks in November through the first week in January. The law was designed to prevent the Ku Klux Klan from erecting a cross in the area, as it has done during December in years past. The KKK display has led to protests and violent confrontations in the square.

Chabad sued, maintaining that the ordinance was unconstitutional. A federal judge agreed with Chabad and struck down the ordinance, but on appeal the U.S. 6th Circuit Court of Appeals reversed and issued a stay allowing the city to enforce the ordinance pending further legal action. Chahad then filed an emergency petition with the U.S. Supreme Court, which was referred to Stevens, who handles controversies that come out of the 6th Circuit.

The Supreme Court later refused to take up the Chabad of Southern Ohio v. City of Cincinnati case, so the menorah remained on display. In 1995, the Supreme Court ruled that the city of Columbus could not ban a KKK cross from Capitol Square because other groups had been given access to the property.

* A minister in Airmont, N.Y., complained because the city's winter holiday display contained a Christmas tree and a menorah but no Nativity scene. The Rev. Michael Johnson of Tallman Bible Church said a creche was included in the display in 2000 and 2001 but was left out this year. He vowed to put one up himself if the city did not.

City officials insisted that the display is permissible, asserting that Christmas trees and menorahs are secular symbols. "We have to be careful of the separation of church and state" Village Trustee Al Spampinato told the Westchester County Journal News. Spampinato also insisted that the display was consistent with guidelines issued by the New York Conference of Mayors.

* Portland, Maine, City Manager Joseph Gray dropped a plan to ban all religious symbols from Ganley Plaza in front of city hall after several religious groups complained, but municipal officials intend to return to the issue this year and draft new guidelines.

Gray says the new policy is needed because too many groups are asking for the right to display symbols in the plaza. He intended to limit December displays to Christmas trees only but later allowed a Jewish group to erect a menorah. Gray told the Maine Sunday Telegram that he will convene an advisory group to draft a new policy governing displays in the area.

* The Board of Selectmen in Westford, Mass., voted to allow Chabad to erect a six-foot menorah on the town common in December even though another rabbi in town opposed the display. Rabbi Shoshana Perry of Congregation Shalom in nearby North Chelmsford asked the board to drop the ceremony, citing concerns over separation of church and state.

The board disagreed. Board Chair Geraldine Healy-Coffin told the Boston Globe, "I think no one felt like we were doing anything but supporting a gathering of people. As long as it's legal, we're happy to have it."
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Publication:Church & State
Date:Jan 1, 2003
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