Should cooperative buildings display a menorah next to the Christmas tree?
Q: My husband and I live in a luxury co-op in Midtown East that for many years displayed both a large Christmas tree and a menorah in the lobby during the holidays. Last year, after the election of a new council, the menorah was replaced by a smaller one by the elevator, out of sight of visitors. I raised the issue with the chairman of the board, who shouted at me that a menorah is a religious symbol, while a Christmas tree celebrates the spirit of the season. I checked with the board of directors, but they did not change their position. As a Jewish person, I was deeply hurt by these actions and the behavior of the president, which I perceived as discriminatory. What can I do?
A: New York City apartment buildings regularly decorate lobbies and common areas with festive displays, typically eschewing overtly religious symbols in favor of more secular ones. Usually Christmas and Hanukkah share the stage.
As the Supreme Court weighed in on holiday exhibitions in public spaces, deeming that a menorah is not a religious symbol when it appears next to a Christmas tree, the lobby of a cooperative is not a public space. And so, as the governing body of a private building, the board has more leeway in how it decorates its lobby than city hall.
“What they have done is certainly not correct, but it may not be a violation of the law,” said Dennis H. Greenstein, a real estate attorney and partner in the Manhattan office of the law firm Seyfarth Shaw.
But the council is required to act in good faith and cannot actively discriminate against residents. “If the cooperative places a Christmas tree in the hall in the spirit of the holidays, it would be unfair and discriminatory against Jews not to include a menorah as well,” said Slava Hazin, a real estate attorney and partner at Warshaw Burstein, a Manhattan law firm.
You are protected against religious discrimination in housing under the New York City Human Rights Act. When asked if a claim like yours could be covered by law, commission spokesperson Alicia McCauley said in an email: “Absolutely. You should get a feel for all of this by talking to everyone and determine if there have been any previous incidents. But yes, if anyone reported that to us, we would investigate.
You can file a complaint online or by phone at (212) 416-0197.
The threat of an investigation might be enough to push the board back. “I don’t know what kind of an answer someone can give that can’t be bad. If they claim it’s religious, why isn’t the Christmas tree religious? Said Mr. Greenstein. “It’s probably not the kind of thing a rational person wants to experience.”
For weekly email updates on residential real estate news, sign up here. Follow us on twitter: @nytrealestate.