Menorah lit for first time at Vt. Statehouse - WCAX.COM Local Vermont News, Weather and Sports-

Menorah lit for first time at Vt. Statehouse

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MONTPELIER, Vt. -

'Tis the season in Montpelier; decorations are up, including the holiday tree on the Vt. Statehouse lawn.

According to the state it's a holiday tree and not a Christmas tree, protecting the First Amendment and the separation of church and state.

"Christmas trees are called holiday trees sometimes because the tree itself is not considered a religious symbol," said Allen Gilbert of the American Civil Liberties Union in Vermont.

But Rabbi Tobie Weisman disagrees and says it's a Christmas tree.

Rabbi Tobie Weisman: I think Christmas is represented by the tree.

Reporter Gina Bullard: Even though it's called a holiday tree?

Rabbi Tobie Weisman: Yes, because that's not part of the Jewish holiday. A Christmas tree is a religious symbol.

Weisman's request to light a menorah on the Statehouse lawn so Jews feel included this holiday season was granted. It will be in Montpelier for only one and a half hours.

"If you live in a smaller community like we do, we do feel more isolated and not part of the wider community when there's just a Christmas tree," Weisman said.

The state granted Weisman's request because it's only temporary. They say putting a menorah up for the duration of Hanukkah next year will have to be reviewed.

"What's happening is people are trying to exercise their First Amendment right for individual religious expression, which is a great thing," Gilbert said.

Religious controversy has been around for years all over the nation. Gilbert says it's an indication of just how difficult it is to preserve religious freedom.

"Holding onto the tolerance this country was founded on requires constant work and makes us all uncomfortable at times," Gilbert said.

Gilbert says by allowing the lighting, the government is staying out of religion by not endorsing any one religion.

"If it's a menorah with a holiday or Christmas tree then it's much more likely a court would say that's permissible," Gilbert said.

"This is part of publicizing the miracle and for the Jewish community to feel part of the celebration this time of year," Weisman said.

This is not a new issue; it's a fight that's been fought all over the country. Vermont has had two federal cases involving challenges to religious displays on public property in the past, including one 25 years ago in City Hall Park in Burlington. In that case, the Federal Appeals Court ruled the menorah display unconstitutional because it was violating the separation of church and state.

The Jewish community that came out Tuesday in Montpelier says even a few hours is the step in the right direction.

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