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Miami Beach officials are considering a $25,000 grant for a Jewish temple
City officials have already considered giving massive piles of money to support Orthodox Jewish religious projects
***I know, I know. This is a LOT for one day. But since this meeting is happening tonight, I wanted to rush this out!***
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Officials in Miami Beach are on the verge of approving a $25,000 taxpayer-funded grant to Temple Moses, a temple “founded in 1968 by Cuban Jewish refugees forced into exile.” While the grant says the money would be “strictly used towards secular programming and services,” that workaround would still be a gift promoting a specific religion that has a strong presence in the community.
What’s more alarming is that it’s not an isolated incident.
Over the past month, there’s been a proxy war going on between church and state and the biggest conflict involved the maintenance of an Orthodox Jewish religious symbol. That’s because the same officials were considering a $72,500 grant to maintain a series of poles and strings that has no value outside of Orthodox Jewish superstition.
Some background: Under Jewish law, on the Sabbath (Friday night to Saturday night), you’re not supposed to carry any of your possessions between private domains, like your home, and public domains. But what if you want to take your baby to synagogue? What if you want to take your keys from inside your home to your driveway where your car is parked? You can’t do it. Jewish law forbids it.
But Orthodox Jews figured out a loophole. All they have to do is turn a “public” domain into a “private” one and problem solved! They accomplish this by creating an eruv (pronounced AY-roov).
An eruv is essentially a gated community built using poles and string. You put up the poles all around a city, connect them with the string, and boom: you’ve created a brand new giant private domain. Orthodox Jews can roam and carry items freely within that space, even on the Sabbath.
(Does their God see through that little trick…? Shut up and stop asking questions.)
Even if you think this is all ridiculous, other people creating imaginary boundaries doesn’t really affect those outside their community, so it shouldn’t be that big of a deal, right?
That’s where the problem lies. In some communities, Orthodox Jews have built eruvs on public property. In some cases, they even tied the string directly on government-owned utility poles. That’s not legal. You can’t just mess with public utilities for religious reasons.
The whole situation gets even murkier, though, when cities not only permit Orthodox Jews to use public property to carry out their religious beliefs, but help them do it.
Earlier this month, Miami Beach officials considered approving a $72,500 grant to the Miami Beach Eruv Council “for the purpose of offsetting costs related to the maintenance and repairs” of local the local eruv, which is ten miles long and three miles wide and considered (according to the Council’s website) to be “One of Americas Largest and Best Known Community Eruvs.”
In the resolution considering the grant, the city defended the move by saying it has “an interest in ensuring that all structures installed on public property are safe and do not present any risk or hazard of tripping or deterioration.”
The city’s attorney added in a memorandum that the grant would be “legally defensible.”
In view of the foregoing, the proposed grant is legally defensible, given that the City has a clear interest in the safety of structures placed on public property, the City has previously awarded numerous grants to organizations performing work or holding private events on public property, and the use of funds here would be limited for maintenance and repair activities on City right of ways, activities that are entirely secular in nature.
But the structures in question are religious, and the maintenance would be required precisely because the city was allowing a religious group to ruin public property.
The Freedom From Religion Foundation said before that meeting that approving this eruv grant would be legally indefensible. In a letter to the city, attorney Chris Line argued that this was unconstitutional:
“The City Commission is considering paying for the maintenance of this sectarian object, which provides no benefit to the majority of Miami Beach’s residents, and only a minimal benefit to a minority of the city’s Jewish population,” FFRF Staff Attorney Chris Line writes in a letter to Miami Beach Mayor Dan Gelber and city commissioners. “While we still maintain that it is inappropriate to allow an eruv at all, it is clear that expending taxpayer funds to support this sectarian religious practice is unconstitutional.”
The Establishment Clause of the First Amendment strictly forbids governmental favoritism for one religion over another. As the eruv line provides no benefit for the majority of residents of Miami Beach, but rather solely Orthodox Jews, this would show a clear favoritism on the part of the Miami Beach City Commission. Any defense stating that this is a “secular grant” works directly against the inexorable religious connotation of an eruv line to begin with.
While courts have allowed eruvs to exist on public property, that’s a far cry from saying governments could fund them, FFRF added.
“This grant would draw a clear line in the sand in support of Orthodox Judaism — and no one else,” says FFRF Co-President Annie Laurie Gaylor. “No one should have to look up and be reminded that their residence falls within a taxpayer-funded religious domain.”
I should point out that there are reasons to defend the eruvs. For one, they just make life for Orthodox Jews (especially women) easier by giving them a way to function on the Sabbath without violating their religious beliefs. Furthermore, at a time where antisemitism is on the rise, arguing against eruvs may be perceived by Jewish people in Miami Beach as a not-so-subtle way to push them out of the city. Finally, there’s the argument that these strings really don’t hurt anybody; unlike a Ten Commandments monument, for example, the eruvs don’t imply that people of other faiths or no faith are wrong or immoral.
But the principle doesn’t change. It’s irrelevant that the string might go unnoticed by most people. If the city is allowed to give a massive cash gift to a group whose existence revolves around perpetuating a religious myth, where does that lead? The government shouldn’t be playing faith-based favorites.
It might have been legal to allow the religious non-profit group to raise money to erect an eruv around the city. But it’s absurd to think the city should be handing them taxpayer dollars to help them out.
While the council members never acknowledged FFRF’s letter, they didn’t vote on the resolution at the February 1 meeting. It’s also not on the agenda for tonight’s meeting, either. For whatever reason, it looks like this issue has been put to rest… at least for now.
However, at that same meeting earlier this month, the council approved a $25,000 grant to the “Capt. Hyman P. Galbut Jewish Learning Center Chabad.”
The resolution insisted that the money be “strictly used towards secular programming and services,” but when any religious organization has a finite pool of money that it must allocate, a $25,000 gift for secular programs merely frees up $25,000 that can be used for religious programs.
Now the same council is about to do it again tonight, voting on another $25,000 gift to Temple Moses. FFRF is, again, sounding the alarm.
The grant would be a direct violation of the First Amendment’s Establishment Clause. By issuing a grant to a Jewish temple, the Miami Beach City Commission is showing a disregard for the foundational principle of keeping state and church as separate entities. Forcing taxpayers to support a religious institution of any sort is constitutionally impermissible, FFRF points out.
While the grant proposal to the temple says it must be used for “secular programming and services,” there is no indication as to how the City Commission would or could track this condition. The Miami Beach City Commission is recklessly gifting taxpayer dollars to a house of worship, providing financial benefit without accountability. This “restriction” would not protect the City Commission from legal challenges.
FFRF is urging the commissioners to reject the proposal before it leads to a lawsuit.
Much like we’ve seen in New York City, even when Orthodox Jewish communities are blatantly doing something illegal, politicians tend to be cowards when it comes to rejecting their demands because they vote as a bloc. No one wants to get on their bad side.
But the hallmark of good leadership is doing the right thing even when it may be unpopular. Does Miami Beach wants to face lawsuits or appease a religious base that keeps taking resources from the rest of the community?
It’s not a hard question. But so far, commissioners haven’t had the courage to do the right thing.