A policy that would ban Hanukkah menorahs from being displayed in city buildings is getting pushback from at least one resident who says doing so is discriminatory. But the city attorney says all religious symbols need to be banned to ensure the city does not violate the Constitution.
Religious symbols on government property have been debated for decades and the U.S. Supreme Court has ruled in several cases on the issues. The city was hoping to avoid controversy by proposing a ban on all religious symbols from most areas in city buildings after a resident called for a Nativity scene. But the city also proposes allowing holiday trees, wreaths and Santa Claus.
“All three of these have religious significance,” said Gerri Penn during public comment at the City Council’s Oct. 28 meeting.
Penn, who is Jewish, explained the Christian ties to wreaths and Santa Claus and said holiday trees are really Christmas trees.
“My problem is that if you are going to exclude the menorah, you should exclude the three I mentioned,” she said. She suggested the council meet with local religious leaders for more feedback before approving the policy. She also suggested allowing Kwanzaa menorahs.
The council voted 5-2 at the Oct. 28 meeting to delay a decision about the policy until November. Voting in favor of deferral were Mayor Denis Shortal and Councilmembers Lynn Deutsch, John Heneghan, Tom Lambert and Pam Tallmadge. Voting no were Councilmembers Terry Nall and Jim Riticher.
“This is very difficult subject and very divisive subject with our citizens,” Shortal said.
The policy would ban Christian, Jewish and Muslim symbols from the common areas of City Hall and other city buildings. Employees would be able to keep religious symbols on their desks or in their offices.
The issue of holiday decorations was first raised last year after resident Rick Callihan complained when the city put up a holiday tree and Hanukkah menorah in the lobby of City Hall. He told officials he wanted a Nativity scene included in the display, leading to the decision to come up with a policy.
A Nativity scene is a Christian symbol depicting the birth of Jesus.
Callihan renewed his request for a Nativity scene at City Hall this year in a Sept. 9 email to City Manager Eric Linton. His email was in response to the city honoring Saint Luke’s Presbyterian Church for its 50th anniversary with a proclamation.
“Congrats on celebrating the 50th anniversary of St Luke’s. On the topic of religion, I’m planning earlier this year for my Nativity scene placement at City Hall. What do you need from me?” Callihan said in the email.
Linton responded to Callihan letting him know the council was considering a policy in October.
Callihan declined to comment about his decision to complain about last year’s holiday displays. He said in a written statement he was pleased the city was working on a policy.
“Without a policy, the city could pick and choose what was displayed year-round, but I believe Dunwoody should be inclusive to all,” he said.
Shortal expressed his disappointment that the policy was needed at the council’s Oct. 14 meeting.
“Sometimes I think we over-legislate the world a little bit,” he said.
“I understand the pros and cons, and I understand today’s world. Sometimes it gets a little much when we have to sit here and write something like this,” Shortal said. “I guess it’s the way things are today.”
In 2015, a similar controversy arose when the Dunwoody Homeowners Association requested the nonprofit Dunwoody Preservation Trust to include a menorah at the Cheek-Spruill House for the annual Light Up Dunwoody event. The DHA sponsors Light Up Dunwoody and the trust owns the house.
The Dunwoody Preservation Trust denied DHA’s request, saying the event was intended to be secular and that religious items could threaten their nonprofit status. In response, the DHA moved the event with a tree and menorah across the street from the house to the Dunwoody Animal Hospital’s lawn.
The U.S. Supreme Court has ruled in some cases that municipalities with holiday displays including a Nativity scene violated the Constitution because they appeared to endorse a religion. The Establishment Clause of the First Amendment bans government from endorsing religion.
In other cases, lower courts have ruled religious symbols like the Ten Commandments can legally be displayed in a courthouse as a historical display.