BLOOMFIELD — A federal judge on Thursday issued a ruling against the city of Bloomfield for placing a Ten Commandments monument on the front lawn of its City Hall and ordered that it be removed by Sept. 10.

In his 32-page opinion, Senior U.S. District Judge James A. Parker wrote that the monument constitutes government speech and is regulated by the First Amendment's Establishment Clause, which prevents the government from making laws “respecting an establishment of religion.”

“In view of the circumstances surrounding the context, history, and purpose of the Ten Commandments monument, it is clear that the City of Bloomfield has violated the Establishment Clause because its conduct in authorizing the continued display of the monument on City property has had the primary or principal effect of endorsing religion,” Parker wrote.

The ruling is a victory for two Bloomfield residents, Jane Felix and Buford Coone, who believe the monument violates their religious freedom.

Felix and Coone said in court records that the monument sends a message the city endorses a particular religious belief. The text of the Ten Commandments monument is taken from the King James Version of the Bible.

“I am surprised (by the decision) and had never really considered the judge ruling against it because it's a historical document just like the Declaration of Independence and the Bill of Rights,” Bloomfield Mayor Scott Eckstein said on Thursday. “The intent from the beginning was that the lawn was going to be used for historical purposes, and that's what the council voted on.”

Eckstein said the next step for the city will be to sit down with the city council and determine “where the council wants to go with this.”

Bloomfield City Attorney Ryan Lane shared the mayor's surprise over the decision.

“We're disappointed, obviously,” Lane said. “I'll review the opinion and provide the city council with any basis for an appeal.” The city has 30 days to appeal the decision with the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals, Lane said.

In 2012, the American Civil Liberties Union of New Mexico filed a lawsuit against the city on behalf of Felix and Coone, who practice Wicca and are members of a Bloomfield Wiccan organization, the Order of the Cauldron of the Sage.

Felix and Coone could not be reached for comment on Thursday.

Peter Simonson, ACLU of New Mexico's executive director, praised the ruling, calling it “a victory for the First Amendment's protections against government endorsed religion.”

“We firmly support the right of individuals, religious groups and community associations to publicly display religious monuments, but the government should not be in the business of picking which sets of religious beliefs belong at city hall,” Simonson wrote in an email to The Daily Times on Thursday. “We hope that the Ten Commandments monument will find a new home on private property in the city where people can continue to enjoy it.”

The granite monument, which is 6 feet tall and weighs 3,000 pounds, was erected on the lawn of City Hall in July 2011 by former city councilor Kevin Mauzy.

Mauzy is also the founder of the Four Corners Historical Monument Project, a group of citizens who raised $3,940 to install the monument. He proposed the installation of monuments on the City Hall lawn in 2007, and city councilors unanimously passed an ordinance allowing monuments to be placed on city property.

Mauzy has said the monument project was part of his pledge when he ran for city council to beautify the city and to promote U.S. history.

City officials have argued the monument lawn was an “open forum.” A sign posted on the lawn seeks to clarify the monuments' purpose and offers residents information on how to pursue installing a monument there. The disclaimer sign was placed there by Mauzy in 2011, the same day the Ten Commandments monument was installed.

But the judge dismissed the “open forum” disclaimer, saying “Mauzy, the only citizen to erect or propose a monument under the Bloomfield forum policy, presented the City Council with a comprehensive plan for the City Hall Lawn, which the city has step-by-step approved. ... Because the City Hall Lawn embodies the fulfillment of Mr. Mauzy's plan, the City has, in effect, created not a public forum for all citizens, but a platform for Mr. Mauzy alone.”

The Ten Commandments monument, which also displays the Great Seal of the United States, was the first of four monuments Mauzy and his group installed on the City Hall lawn. He also erected granite tributes to the Declaration of Independence, President Abraham Lincoln's “Gettysburg Address” and, last month, a pair of tablets inscribed with the Bill of Rights, the pledge of allegiance and a depiction of the Liberty Bell.

Mauzy declined to comment on Thursday, saying he needs to read the judge's opinion and confer with his attorney.

 

James Fenton covers Aztec and Bloomfield for The Daily Times. He can be reached at 505-564-4621 and jfenton@daily-times.com. Follow him @fentondt on Twitter.