January 2017 Church & State - January 2017

N.M. Ten Commandments Monument Unconstitutional, Says Federal Appeals Court

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A New Mexico city’s display of a Ten Commandments monument violates the separation of church and state, a federal appeals court has ruled.

The monument in the city of Bloomfield was erected in 2011 at the behest of a former member of the city council. Although local churches made donations to pay for it, the council arranged for the monument’s display in front of city hall.

In 2012, two Wiccan city residents  filed suit, backed by the American Civil Liberties Union.

The U.S. 10th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in November that the display of the religious code at the seat of government doesn’t pass muster.

The court reviewed the history of the monument and noted its clear ties to religion and its support from area churches. The court opined that “any reasonable and objective observer would glean an apparent religious motivation from these circumstances.”

Peter Simonson, executive director of ACLU of New Mexico, applauded the ruling.

“Bloomfield shouldn’t be in the business of deciding which set of beliefs should be favored from among the diverse religious traditions and beliefs held by its citizens,” Simonson said.

But Jonathan Scruggs, an attorney for Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF), a Religious Right legal group that represented the city, told the Farmington Daily Times that the monument should have been permitted.

“In this case, a Ten Commandments monument nestled among many other monuments honoring significant documents in American history shouldn’t be attacked simply because two people feel offended by it,” Scruggs said.

But the other documents displayed in the area – the Bill of Rights, the Gettysburg Address and the Declaration of Independence – are not primarily religious in nature, nor are they drawn from religious texts.

Scruggs also said there is a disclaimer in the area stating that the city does not endorse the religious content. The appeals court, however, found this unpersuasive.

“A reasonable observer might have to get on his knees and inspect closely” to read the disclaimer, the court observed. It compared the disclaimer to “rapid-fire warnings at the end of prescription drug commercials, where it is obvious the company has slipped them in as a barely audible afterthought just to comply with the rules.”

ADF and city officials are considering appealing the ruling in Coone v. City of Bloomfield.

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