New Jersey town: Christmas tree, yes, menorah, no

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LAKEWOOD, N.J. — It’s beginning to look a lot like Christmas here. But Hanukkah? Not so much.

In this town of about 90,000 residents, including a large Jewish enclave, a complaint over a menorah set up beside a decorated Christmas tree in Town Square has triggered the menorah’s removal and upset numerous residents and at least one downtown merchant, who says township officials acted rashly.

For decades, Lakewood’s display has featured a Christmas tree and a small menorah. No one has complained until now, township officials say.

Meanwhile, the Rev. Wesley L. Lindquist, senior pastor of Calvary Lighthouse, who says he keeps a menorah on his desk, insists he never sought to have the menorah removed or threatened to take legal action if it wasn’t. “So the idea of taking anything down … I didn’t feel that was necessary.”

Lindquist suggested the controversy might stem from a misunderstanding.

He said he had a conversation with a woman named Vivian Knight, whose residence could not be confirmed. She told him she was going to ask the Township Committee to add a Nativity scene to its holiday display in Town Square. Lindquist subsequently wrote to Mayor Albert Akerman in support of the idea.

“This request would certainly be appreciated by the Christian/Catholic minority population of Lakewood,” the letter states. “We enjoy a unique blend of diversity in this township and by including the Nativity scene we recognize all people of faith living in Lakewood.”

But Akerman said Knight took a different tone when she addressed the governing body’s Dec. 3 meeting. That night, and in conversations with township officials afterward, he said Knight threatened to go to the media and file a lawsuit if her request wasn’t approved.

“She wanted to make the distinction that the menorah is a religious symbol and the tree is not,” Akerman said. “She threatened to sue.”

Knight could not be reached for comment Wednesday.

Seeking to avoid a possible lawsuit, Township Attorney Steven Secare advised the committee members to remove the outdoor menorah, as well as another one displayed in Town Hall.

“Why cause litigation when it’s costly and time-consuming for everybody?” Secare said Wednesday. “The easiest thing to do was take it down for a year.”

While the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution bars government from endorsing religion, the Supreme Court has allowed the display on public property of a wide range of holiday fixtures, including lights, Christmas trees, depictions of Santa Claus, menorahs, and even a creche.

But the court’s rulings have stressed that the constitutionality of a display will be determined on a case-by-case basis dependent upon several factors, including the prominence of different features, the location, any signage, and any permitting or written policies, among other considerations.

Harold Herskowitz, who owns a toy store and frozen yogurt shop downtown, is not pleased with the current situation. He said, “The fact that there’s a Christmas tree on the lake (Lake Carasaljo) and a massive Christmas tree on Town Square and no mention of Hanukkah is a serious problem, because it looks like Lakewood is promoting Christianity.”

– Written by Shannon Mullen for the Asbury Park Press in N.J., USAToday Network, via Religion News Service