By EMMA GANNON
DENVER (CN) — A city in New Mexico’s Four Corners area allowed an “impermissible taint of endorsement” by letting a city councilor erect a large statue of the Ten Commandments on the City Hall lawn, the 10th Circuit ruled, affirming a 2014 ruling.
Two polytheistic Wiccan residents sued the city of Bloomfield, pop. 8,200, in 2012, after the large stone glyph was erected on the lawn, next to similar monuments to the Bill of Rights and the Gettysburg Address.
Plaintiff Jane Felix said she “stopped going to City Hall to pay her water bills so she could avoid the Monument, but still sees it from the road five or six times a week.”
Co-plaintiff B.N. Coone said he “drives past the monument three or four times a week and sees it up close every month when he goes to pay his water bill.”
The city’s attorneys told the trial judge that “being offended” was not a valid claim for injury, and that the Ten Commandment stone merely represented the religious community of Bloomfield, not an endorsement by the city.
But neither the U.S. District Court nor the 10th Circuit bought the argument.
City Councilman Kevin Mauzy proposed the Ten Commandments monument to the City Council in 2007. The council approved it, despite protests from a number of citizens at the meeting. Two churches helped pay for it.
U.S. District Judge James Parker found in August 2014 that the city had violated the Establishment Clause, and ordered it to remove the statue by Sept. 10, 2014.
“While Mr. Mauzy testified that he erected the Ten Commandments monument for ‘historical’ instead of ‘religious’ purposes, Mr. Mauzy’s religious statements have thoroughly eclipsed his putative ‘historical’ message,” Judge Parker wrote.
“There is a fine line between (1) acknowledging the secular significance of the role the Ten Commandments have played in this country’s heritage and (2) making a religiously charged statement about what the values of a city, state, or locale ought to be.”
The city appealed, and its attorney Jonathan Scruggs, with the Christian rights group Alliance Defending Freedom, told the 10th Circuit at oral arguments in September 2015 that the monument was meant to “speak for the private parties who put it up.”
But the 10th Circuit affirmed Parker’s ruling on Nov. 9. U.S. Circuit Judge David Ebel wrote for the unanimous panel that the monument did indeed violate the Establishment Clause.
Ebel cited Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor’s “endorsement test,” that the “government impermissibly endorses religion if its conduct has either the purpose or the effect of conveying a message that religion or a particular religious belief is favored or preferred.”
The 10th Circuit found that “Bloomfield impermissibly gave the impression to reasonable observers that the City was endorsing religion.”
“It was especially inadequate here because of the plain religious motivations apparent from the approval (approved alone), financing (sponsored entirely by churches), and unveiling (ceremony rife with Christian allusions) of the monument.
“In light of those considerations, and the situational context of the Ten Commandments on the lawn, the city would have to do more than merely add a few secular monuments in order to signal to objective observers a ‘principal or primary’ message of neutrality. Thus the impermissible taint of endorsement remains, and as we have said, nothing sufficiently purposeful, public, and persuasive was done to cure it.”
Circuit Judges Robert Bacharach and Carolyn McHugh joined Ebel on the panel.