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Group asks Belen to remove city flag

BELEN – A Wisconsin-based group is once again urging the city to remove what it perceives as a promotion of religion from its recently approved official flag.

The Freedom From Religion Foundation sent a letter to the city’s former attorney, Charles Rennick, telling city officials that the Star of Bethlehem depicted on the flag is unconstitutional.

“The inclusion of the ‘Star of Bethlehem’ on this official city flag violates the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment,” wrote Christopher Line of FFRF. “The Establishment Clause, ‘at the very least, prohibits government from appearing to take a position on questions of religious belief or from making adherence to a religion relevant in any way to a person’s standing in the political community.’ ”

The flag, which was designed by volunteer Jim Rende and Councilor Frank Ortega, was presented to the City Council two years ago.

Since then, the flag has been flying at several locations. It wasn’t until last month that the council unanimously officially approved it.

This same organization demanded in July 2015 that the city remove the Nativity scene at the Heart of Belen Plaza, pronouncing it was unlawful to maintain a display that “shows a preference for, and endorsing one religion.”

Belen Mayor Jerah Cordova said the flag will continue to fly over Belen.

“We’ve had a star on our water tower for years. We light it every Christmas, and we’re proud to do so,” Cordova said. “As we told this group three years ago, we aren’t afraid to represent our history and name, while remaining a welcoming city. Belen is unique in this way, much like Las Cruces and its depictions of three crosses.”

The FFRF said that several federal courts have ruled that religious symbols on official city logos or representations violate the U.S. Constitution.

“Though most of the cases focused on Latin crosses on official city seals, this religious symbol placed on an official city flag would be found unconstitutional under the same reasoning,” the FFRF’s letter states, “especially given that the particular ‘Star of Bethlehem’ depiction chosen by the city is meant to resemble a Latin cross and the city’s history of using its name as an excuse to promote and endorse Christianity.”

The FFRF urged the city to “immediately discontinue using this as the official city flag,” in the letter, and asked that it adopt something else that is “inclusive of all citizens.”

When the FFRF contacted Belen officials three years ago, it threatened to file a lawsuit regarding the Nativity scene. To date, no lawsuit has been filed.

Group wants Belen to remove star from flag