ALBUQUERQUE – A coalition of nearly two dozen states led by Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton is stepping into a dispute in northwestern New Mexico about a Ten Commandments monument.
Paxton, along with attorneys general from 22 states, are supporting city leaders in Bloomfield, New Mexico, who are asking the U.S. Supreme Court to hear their appeal of a lower court ruling requiring the removal of a Ten Commandments display from the lawn outside City Hall.
The coalition filed its brief Thursday, joining a growing list of groups and members of Congress who are interested in seeing the court settle more definitively the question of whether such monuments or displays violate the clause in the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution that prohibits the establishment of religion by the government.
Attorneys involved in the case say other cases from Kentucky and Arkansas to California have had different outcomes as lower courts have applied different standards to reach their decisions.
Paxton argues that governments shouldn’t be forced to censor religion’s role in history because some people are offended. He says the Supreme Court has ruled previously that a passive monument such as a Ten Commandments display, accompanied by other displays acknowledging the nation’s religious heritage, are not an establishment of religion.
Republican U.S. Rep. Steve Pearce of New Mexico and 23 of his colleagues make similar arguments in a separate brief.
“The disorder in the courts applying the Establishment Clause generates unnecessary litigation regarding these symbols and memorials that reflect our national heritage,” the congressional members argue.
In July, attorneys representing the city of Bloomfield filed a petition with the court asking that it hear their appeal.
The legal fight began in 2012 when the American Civil Liberties Union sued on behalf of two residents who objected to the monument. A federal appeals court in February let stand a lower court ruling that concluded the monument violated the constitutional prohibition on the government endorsing a religion.
Attorneys for the city argue that the decision by the 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ignored previous rulings by the Supreme Court that simply being offended by such a monument did not give someone a legal basis to challenge the monument.
Attorneys with the ACLU of New Mexico have said they believe the record is in their favor if the Supreme Court were to hear the case.
In seeking a resolution from the high court, Bloomfield’s attorneys pointed to a California case involving a Latin cross displayed on government property being held unconstitutional when surrounded by stone plaques honoring military personnel. However, in another case, a cross was deemed constitutional when displayed in a city insignia as a sculpture outside of a city sports complex and in a school mural.
There also are the cases of a Ten Commandments poster in a Kentucky courthouse being found constitutional and a monument on the grounds of a public building in Arkansas being found unconstitutional.
In Bloomfield, the concrete block that displays the Ten Commandments sits alongside other monuments related to the Declaration of Independence, the Gettysburg Address and the Bill of Rights.
The city claims it took steps to avoid endorsing religion by placing disclaimers on the lawn stating that the area was a public forum for citizens to display monuments related to the city’s history of law and government and that the privately-funded monuments did not necessarily reflect the opinions of the city.