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Judge rejects Ten Commandments display

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — The city of Bloomfield violated the constitutional ban on establishment of religion by erecting a Ten Commandments monument on the lawn of city hall, Senior U.S. District Judge James A. Parker said in a 32-page opinion filed Thursday.

Parker ordered the removal of the monument by Sept. 10.

Parker said the case was a close call and could have ended very differently with a slight change of the facts. For instance, the city might have passed constitutional muster had the monument been placed during a ceremony without overt religious overtones, the court said.

Any of a number of might-have-beens could have led to a ruling favoring Bloomfield instead of the citizens who found the monument objectionable. The American Civil Liberties Union of New Mexico filed suit in federal court on their behalf, and the issue was tried before Parker without a jury in Albuquerque last March.

Parker found that the monument violated the clause banning government establishment of religion “because its conduct in authorizing the continued display of the monument on City property has had the primary or principal effect of endorsing religion.”

“It’s actually a surprise,” Bloomfield Mayor Scott Eckstein said in a phone interview Thursday. “I figured because it was a historical document it would be OK.”

City councilors and attorneys haven’t decided how they will respond to the judge’s decision, Eckstein said. He said the city may appeal the judge’s ruling.

“I think we are a very moral and patriotic town,” Eckstein said. “To me (the Ten Commandments) are more about the history of the country. The Ten Commandments are historical in America, just like the Declaration of Independence.”

The Ten Commandments monument was unveiled on July 4, 2011. Other monuments, recognizing the Gettysburg Address, the Declaration of Independence, the Bill of Rights and the Pledge of Allegiance, were added later.

Kevin Mauzy, the former Bloomfield city councilor who proposed and erected the 3,000-pound granite monument to the Ten Commandments , testified that he raised money through two area churches to pay for the $3,940 project.

Mauzy said he sought legal advice from the Alliance Defending Freedom, a Christian legal nonprofit, so as to avoid possible legal challenges.

Mauzy insisted that he had no religious motivation for proposing the monument during an April 2007 City Council meeting, when he and three other councilors voted to approve the project.

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.

The 6-foot-tall stela inscribed with language from the King James Version of the Bible occupies a prominent site next to the front entrance of City Hall.