Miami Shores rejected a proposal to add a menorah to its holiday decorations at Village Hall this year after several village officials spoke this week against the move, saying First Amendment concerns outweighed support from the mayor and several Jewish community members.
Mayor Crystal Wagar proposed Tuesday that the village display a menorah during the winter holidays as “a nice show of respect and a show of religious diversity.”
“Many municipalities around us display menorahs along with their Christmas decorations,” said Wagar, who became the first Black mayor in the city’s 87-year history in 2019. “There really shouldn’t be a discussion of this. This should be something we’re willing to do.”
But Village Attorney Richard Sarafan, who is Jewish, said it’s not so simple. Displaying the Hanukkah symbol could be seen as the village favoring one religion over others, he said — a potential violation of the U.S. Constitution’s establishment clause.
“You’re begging for litigation,” Sarafan said. “It is simply not the role of government to support or appear to support any particular religion.”
Sarafan said some courts have made legal distinctions between governments supporting religious symbols, which isn’t allowed, and holiday symbols, which is allowed.
“A Christmas tree, oddly enough, under the law is not always viewed as a religious symbol,” Sarafan said. “It’s a holiday symbol.”
Sarafan applied the distinction to Hanukkah-related objects: A dreidel, the four-sided spinning top played during Hanukkah, is a holiday symbol and not a religious symbol, he said, because it’s “not integral” to the holiday’s religious origins. But a menorah is a religious symbol, he said.
The attorney said that, if the village allows one type of religious display on government property, it may need to allow them all — as Florida’s state government did in 2013, welcoming a pole celebrating the fake holiday Festivus from the TV show “Seinfeld” and a spaghetti monster alongside a nativity scene in the Capitol in Tallahassee.
One Miami Shores councilman, Stephen Loffredo, supported the mayor’s proposal and made a motion to approve it. Loffredo, an attorney himself, even suggested he would defend the village for free if it got sued. But three other council members declined to second his motion, killing it before it could reach a vote.
Councilman Sean Brady said he wouldn’t support any type of religious display on government property.
“I would be offended by crosses and nativity scenes in front of Village Hall,” he said. “That’s the only reason I would not want to vote to do this.”
The decision caught the attention of the mayors of multiple nearby cities that display menorahs on their property each winter. Miami’s mayor, Francis Suarez, weighed in on Twitter Wednesday evening, writing that Miami Shores “must reconsider its wrong decision to refuse a menorah being place at Village Hall during Hanukkah.”
“There is no good reason to deny this request. A menorah stands for religious liberty and proudly stands tall at Miami City Hall each year,” Suarez wrote.
Bal Harbour Mayor Gabriel Groisman, who is Jewish, also called attention to the matter in a tweet. He told the Miami Herald he hopes the public pressure will push the council to change its mind.
“Despite the leaps that society has taken forward, when I heard what was happening in Miami Shores, it was just a strong reminder of where we still are and things we have to deal with,” he said in an interview.