Courtroom interior_newWritten by Don Byrd

[Update 10/19/17: The U.S. Supreme Court has denied cert in the case involving the Bloomfield Ten Commandments monument, leaving in place the 10th Circuit opinion described below.]

Last week, the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled unconstitutional a Ten Commandments monument displayed on the lawn of Bloomfield, New Mexico’s City Hall, affirming a lower court’s decision. Ten Commandments monuments on government property can be a confusing area of church-state law. Some displays are allowed by courts; others are disallowed. 

What makes the difference? Courts emphasize the specific facts of each case.

Here, the city argued that the display raised no church-state concerns because the 3,400-pound monument was funded by private donations and included disclaimers distancing the religious message from the opinions of the government. But the Appeals Court disagreed, concluding that the circumstances surrounding the Bloomfield monument’s placement gave reasonable observers the impression that the city officially endorses religion.

Here is an excerpt from the opinion, in which the court discusses this conclusion:

First . . . here [City Councilor and monument applicant Kevin] Mauzy initially fundraised exclusively through local churches, rather than other local civic organizations. Second . . . the dedication ceremony here was decidedly religious. The occasion began with an invocation by a deacon of a local church, the flag-folding was set to religious narration, and Mauzy gave a speech riddled with Christian allusions, including an exhortation that “God and his Ten Commandments continue to protect us from our evil,” and other similarly religious overtures. Third . . . the Monument was originally approved and erected in isolation and began as the focus of the government’s efforts. The Supreme Court has told us that “[w]hen the government initiates an effort to place [the Ten Commandments] alone in public view, a religious object is unmistakable.” If a religious motivation is “unmistakable” merely when the Ten Commandments is erected alone, then there can be no doubt about the City’s apparent motivations here when it not only installed the Monument in isolation, but also did so with the initial financial backing of religious organizations and unveiled the Monument at a religious ceremony. Any reasonable and objective observer would glean an apparent religious motivation from these circumstances.

The court found the disclaimers insufficient to overcome the appearance of endorsement, and were likewise unpersuaded by the city’s subsequent addition of “a few secular monuments.”

Associated Press reports the city may appeal the ruling.