Martin Kidston

(Missoula County) Not wanting to take sides in a foreign conflict yet looking to stand in support of the Jewish community, Missoula County on Tuesday grappled with a decision on whether to permit a Hanukkah menorah display on the courthouse lawn.

Ultimately, commissioners opted to deny the symbol's display outside the building, citing a number of reasons. Instead, they approved its display inside the building alongside a Christmas tree after speaking with two Missoula rabbis.

“One of the concerns I have right now is that the menorah isn't just a symbol of support,” said Commissioner Josh Slotnick. “In this historical moment, it feels like it's more a symbol of taking sides in a war. It could also be taken as antagonistic to people who wish to the see the war stopped. I'm not sure how to navigate that.”

The county has struggled over the past two years to craft a policy on displays placed on or around the courthouse, which is public property. Some contend that the courthouse is the “people's house” and the First Amendment's protection of free speech applies. But others have asked if that also applies to groups whose speech is considered to be offensive.

Approving some requests and denying others becomes subjective, and commissioners fear it could leave the county open to an eventual lawsuit.

“We have a facility lease policy that covers standard events. But this (menorah) doesn't fit any existing policy,” said county CAO Chris Lounsbury. “We've been working for the last year on a lease policy that would be more in keeping with this, but that hasn't been finalized yet.”

No policy and a slippery slope

With no policy in place, commissioners have been asked to approve various displays on a case-by-case basis. In the past, the county has permitted groups to light the courthouse in purple to support the Open Aid Alliance. More recently, it also illuminated the clock tower in blue and yellow to support Ukraine as it fights to defend its freedom from Russia.

It was matter of time before a religious symbol came into play, and with Israel and Hamas at war and millions of Palestinians displaced, commissioners were split on approving the display outside the courthouse and what type of message it would send.

Commissioners Slotnick and Dave Strohmaier stepped away from the meeting at one point to call two different Missoula rabbis in search of advice. Strohmaier spoke with Rabbi Chezky Vogel of the Chabad Jewish Center in Missoula, who lobbied for the menorah to be displayed outside the building in support of the Jewish people.

“I was moved that we should do this. The outdoor display is visible and makes a statement in a way that tucking something inside the rotunda of the courthouse would not,” said Strohmaier. “He's of the mind that a menorah is not only a Jewish symbol, but a broader symbol of good and hope that, at this moment in time, needs to be allowed in display in a way that shows support to the Jewish community.”

Hamas fighters attacked Israel and kidnapped citizens in early October, drawing initial outrage from the global community. In the weeks that have passed, Strohmaier said Rabbi Vogel feels that Missoula's local government has remained silent and the menorah, at least, could be displayed as a symbol of hope and support.

But Slotnick, who spoke with Rabbi Laurie Franklin of Har Shalom, pushed to display the menorah inside the courthouse, saying that too has impact.

“She talked about the potential to misunderstand the menorah as a symbol and that we're making a statement on a war,” Slotnick said. “It's pretty complicated and the way to make this decision would be to have more time to deliberate and bring in more people who can speak to it.”

Slotnick lobbied to display the menorah inside.

“(Franklin) wanted us to understand that the Jewish community isn't a monolith and there are certain religious sects and they have different viewpoints on these things,” Slotnick said. “Her take, given the complexity, is that we shouldn't be expected to make a decision this quickly, and put the menorah next to the Christmas tree in the rotunda where it will be seen as a holiday symbol and statement of support, but not be misconstrued as a statement of war.”

Commissioner Juanita Vero also supported the menorah's display inside the courthouse rotunda rather than outside the building. Religious symbols can be misinterpreted, or even offensive to some, she said.

“How I was raised, sometimes bad things come cloaked in a flag carrying a cross,” she said. “These symbols can mean different things to other people, and we can't control how people are going to receive them.”

While the two rabbis spoken to by commissioners disagreed on where the menorah should be displayed, they did agree that the conversation had merit and deserved more time.

“This deserves a larger, robust conversation where we bring in people who are not at this table right now,” Slotnick said. “We need to have a conversation with all the right voices around the table, and three of us (commissioners) isn't even close to it.”