Bloomfield appeals Ten Commandments monument ruling

James Fenton The Daily Times
The Daily Times

BLOOMFIELD — A federal judge who ruled a Ten Commandments monument must be removed from the Bloomfield City Hall lawn by Sept. 10, will allow the 3,000-pound marker to remain during the city's appeal of the ruling to the 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.

On Monday, Senior U.S. District Court Judge James A. Parker stayed the injunction, keeping the monument in place while Bloomfield officials and their lawyers seek a reversal of the decision, which could take more than a year to be resolved. On Friday, attorneys for the city gave notice of their intent to appeal Parker's ruling.

The federal judge's Aug. 7 opinion and order said that the granite marker 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."

A group of faith-based attorneys for Alliance Defending Freedom, a nonprofit Christian organization in Scottsdale, Ariz., is defending the city against two Bloomfield residents, Jane Felix and Buford Coone.

Jonathan Scruggs, an attorney for the defense team, said in a phone interview on Thursday that the granting of the stay represents a victory for supporters of the monument.

"I think it's a victory for the city as well as the citizens of Bloomfield and the monument owners," Scruggs said. "All around, it makes sense, to have the monument remain in place."

Scruggs wrote a 16-page legal motion that was filed Monday.

In it, he argues that removing the monument would "cause irreparable harm to Bloomfield by undermining a democratically justified policy and will cause irreparable harm to the monument owners by violating their First and Fifth Amendment rights."

The American Civil Liberties Union of New Mexico sued the city on behalf of Felix and Coone. ACLU Executive Director Peter Simonson said the appeal was no surprise.

"We look forward to defending Judge Parker's recent decision that found that the Ten Commandments monument installed at Bloomfield City Hall is an unconstitutional endorsement of religion," Simonson said. "The government shouldn't interfere in religion by deciding which sets of beliefs to promote over others. Religion is an important part of many people's lives, and it thrives best when the government stays out of it."

Scruggs, who will argue the case on behalf of the city before the 10th Circuit if the three-judge panel calls for oral arguments, is confident the monument is historical, not religious.

"A Ten Commandments monument nestled among many other monuments honoring significant documents in American history should not be attacked simply because two people say they are offended by it," Scruggs said in a Wednesday press release. "The emotional response of an offended passerby should not amount to a violation of the Establishment Clause. Someone who is offended by the idea that religion is important to our society believes the opposite of what the authors of our Constitution believed."

In a similar case, the 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals handed the city of Fargo a victory on Monday, ruling against the Red River Freethinkers, a secular rights group that had challenged the placing of a Ten Commandments monument on City Hall property there. The court upheld a district court's judgment in favor of the city.

Scruggs cited a 2005 Supreme Court case, Van Orden v. Perry, where, in a split vote, the court ruled in favor of allowing a Ten Commandments monument at the Texas State Capitol in Austin as compelling precedent that Bloomfield's monument will ultimately prevail with the 10th Circuit.

"The Supreme Court has weighed in on Van Orden v. Perry. In this case it's undeniable that it's an historical document. To me, you'd have to turn a blind eye to ignore what is," Scruggs said. "The city's policy states monuments have to have historical significance. Just look at the lawn. The lawn itself contains numerous historical documents erected by private parties with a sign saying the lawn is a public forum. We feel it's clear cut and any reasonable person will make the same conclusion."

Efforts to reach Felix and Coone were unsuccessful. City officials referred questions about the case to the city attorney who would speak only about the process.

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