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Trial begins on Bible-themed monument in Bloomfield

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Correction: Bloomfield Mayor Scott Eckstein did not contribute money to pay for a Ten Commandments monument at City Hall. An earlier version of this story incorrectly reported that he had contributed.

Copyright © 2014 Albuquerque Journal

A federal judge this week will consider whether a 3,000-pound monument inscribed with the Ten Commandments on the front lawn of Bloomfield City Hall violates the religious freedoms of two of the city’s residents.

The American Civil Liberties Union filed the lawsuit against the city on behalf of two plaintiffs who practice the Wiccan religion and says the monument conveys the message that the city endorses a particular religious belief.

“In my opinion, it says that anybody who doesn’t agree with this monument on city grounds is an outsider,” Jane Felix, the spiritual leader of a Wiccan group in the Bloomfield area, testified during the first day of trial in U.S. District Court of New Mexico. “It has no place on City Hall property.”

Felix described Wicca as an Earth-based religion that recognizes both male and female deities.

Attorneys for the city of Bloomfield contend that “private parties” erected and paid for the monument under a 2007 city resolution that allows members of the public “to erect historical monuments of their choosing.”

Jonathan Scruggs, an attorney for the Alliance Defending Freedom, a nonprofit Christian conservative group, is defending the city of Bloomfield and said city councilors approved the policy to allow citizens to erect historical monuments on a designated site at City Hall.

On its website, the Alliance Defending Freedom describes itself as a “legal ministry” of U.S. attorneys that advocates for the constitutional protection of religious freedom.

Since the Ten Commandments monument was dedicated on July 4, 2011, two other stone monuments have been erected nearby memorializing the Declaration of Independence and Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address, Scruggs said.

“We see that private parties are the driving force here,” Scruggs told Senior U.S. District Judge James A. Parker during opening arguments on Monday. Bloomfield had a “secular purpose” of allowing private speech by erecting historical monuments, he said.

The 6-foot-tall gray granite monument, inscribed with the Ten Commandments from the King James Version of the Bible, occupies a prominent site next to the front entrance of City Hall.

The ACLU contends that the monument is visible to anyone who visits City Hall and amounts to government endorsement of Christianity, violating religious protections guaranteed by the U.S. Constitution.

Andrew Schultz, an Albuquerque attorney working with the ACLU, contends that Bloomfield leaders drove the effort to erect the monument. The project was proposed in 2007 by Kevin Mauzy, a member of the Bloomfield City Council from 2006 to 2010, and approved unanimously by the four-member council.

“This is not a free speech case,” Schultz said during opening arguments. “It is a case of government speech.”

Schultz told Parker that most of the money for the monument came from Mauzy and three other former Bloomfield city councilors who approved Mauzy’s plan to put the monument in a prominent location in front of City Hall. No other monuments had previously existed at the site, he said.

“The fact that the monument was privately financed makes no difference,” he said.

Two former city councilors each testified on Monday that they had contributed money to build the monument.

A key element in the case is a city resolution approved by the Bloomfield City Council in July 2007, about four months after the council’s approval of Mauzy’s proposal to erect the monument.

The resolution created a “public forum” at City Hall that allows private groups to erect historical monuments on the front lawn. Attorneys for the city contend that the policy provides “equal access” to any group that wants a monument at City Hall relevant to the “history or heritage” of Bloomfield.

ACLU attorneys contend the policy is an attempt to provide the city with a legal justification for having a monument with a clear religious message.

Felix, who lives within two miles of City Hall, testified that she signed a petition in 2007 objecting to plans to build the monument. Felix also said she sent a letter to Bloomfield city leaders protesting the move but received no reply.

Buford Coone, a second plaintiff in the lawsuit, said he lives about half a mile from City Hall and sees the Ten Commandments monument each month when he pays a water bill.

“It sends the message that Bloomfield is now a Christian community and all others need not be bothered by it,” said Coone, who is a member of the Wiccan group led by Felix.

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