23 states join call for hear­ing on Com­mand­ments

Northwest Arkansas Democrat-Gazette - - FRONT PAGE - DEMO­CRAT-GAZETTE STAFF AND WIRE RE­PORTS

AL­BU­QUERQUE, N.M. — A coali­tion of nearly two dozen states, led by the Texas at­tor­ney gen­eral, is step­ping into a dis­pute in New Mex­ico over a Ten Com­mand­ments mon­u­ment, ask­ing the U.S. Supreme Court to set­tle more defini­tively the ques­tion of whether such mon­u­ments or dis­plays are con­sti­tu­tional.

Ken Pax­ton and the at­tor­neys gen­eral from 22 other states are sup­port­ing city lead­ers in Bloom­field, N.M., who are ask­ing the high court to hear their ap­peal of a lower court rul­ing re­quir­ing the re­moval of a Ten Com­mand­ments dis­play from the lawn out­side City Hall.

The coali­tion filed its brief Thurs­day, join­ing a grow­ing list of groups and mem­bers of Congress who are in­ter­ested in see­ing the court de­cide whether the mon­u­ments vi­o­late the clause in the First Amend­ment of the U.S. Con­sti­tu­tion, which pro­hibits the es­tab­lish­ment of re­li­gion by the gov­ern­ment.

At­tor­neys in­volved in the case say other cases from states such as Ken­tucky and Cal­i­for­nia have had dif­fer­ent out­comes as lower courts have ap­plied dif­fer­ent stan­dards to reach their de­ci­sions.

Arkansas’ at­tor­ney gen­eral, Les­lie Rut­ledge, joined in fil­ing the brief. She said she is urg­ing the jus­tices to hear the case and de­cide in fa­vor of the New Mex­ico town.

“Dis­play­ing the 10 Com­mand­ments, which many

ac­knowl­edge as a sig­nif­i­cant ba­sis for Amer­i­can law, is per­fectly con­sti­tu­tional,” Rut­ledge said in a news re­lease. “How­ever, this is an area of the law that is not be­ing ap­plied con­sis­tently and the U.S. Supreme Court must weigh in and of­fer much-needed clar­ity.”

The Arkansas Leg­is­la­ture passed a law in 2015 per­mit­ting the in­stal­la­tion of a Ten Com­mand­ments mon­u­ment on the state Capi­tol grounds. In June, the mon­u­ment was de­stroyed by a man in a sub­com­pact ve­hi­cle, ac­cord­ing to po­lice re­ports. A re­place­ment mon­u­ment has been or­dered, ac­cord­ing to state Sen. Ja­son Rapert, R-Bigelow, the spon­sor of the 2015 law.

Rut­ledge’s spokesman, Judd Deere, said there is “no pend­ing lit­i­ga­tion” against the state’s mon­u­ment.

Pax­ton ar­gues that gov­ern­ments shouldn’t be forced to cen­sor re­li­gion’s role in his­tory be­cause some peo­ple are of­fended. He says the Supreme Court has ruled pre­vi­ously that a pas­sive mon­u­ment such as a Ten Com­mand­ments dis­play, ac­com­pa­nied by other dis­plays ac­knowl­edg­ing the na­tion’s re­li­gious her­itage, are not an es­tab­lish­ment of re­li­gion.

U.S. Rep. Steve Pearce, R-N.M., and 23 of his col­leagues make sim­i­lar ar­gu­ments in a sep­a­rate brief.

“The dis­or­der in the courts ap­ply­ing the Es­tab­lish­ment Clause gen­er­ates un­nec­es­sary lit­i­ga­tion re­gard­ing these sym­bols and memo­ri­als that re­flect our na­tional her­itage,” the con­gres­sional mem­bers ar­gue.

In July, at­tor­neys rep­re­sent­ing Bloom­field filed a pe­ti­tion with the court ask­ing that it hear their ap­peal.

The le­gal fight be­gan in 2012 when the Amer­i­can Civil Lib­er­ties Union sued on be­half of two res­i­dents who ob­jected

to the mon­u­ment. A fed­eral ap­peals court in Fe­bru­ary let stand a lower court rul­ing that con­cluded the mon­u­ment vi­o­lated the con­sti­tu­tional pro­hi­bi­tion on the gov­ern­ment en­dors­ing a re­li­gion.

At­tor­neys for the city ar­gue that the de­ci­sion by the 10th U.S. Cir­cuit Court of Ap­peals ig­nored pre­vi­ous rul­ings by the Supreme Court that sim­ply be­ing of­fended by such a mon­u­ment did not give some­one a le­gal ba­sis to chal­lenge the mon­u­ment.

At­tor­neys with the ACLU of New Mex­ico have said they be­lieve that the record is in their fa­vor if the Supreme Court were to hear the case.

In seek­ing a res­o­lu­tion from the high court, Bloom­field’s at­tor­neys pointed to a Cal­i­for­nia case in­volv­ing a Latin cross dis­played on gov­ern­ment prop­erty be­ing held un­con­sti­tu­tional when sur­rounded by stone plaques hon­or­ing mil­i­tary per­son­nel. How­ever, in an­other case, a cross was deemed con­sti­tu­tional when dis­played in a city in­signia as a sculp­ture out­side of a city sports com­plex and in a school mu­ral.

In a case in Ken­tucky, a Ten Com­mand­ments poster in a courthouse was found con­sti­tu­tional.

In Bloom­field, the con­crete block that dis­plays the Ten Com­mand­ments sits along­side other mon­u­ments re­lated to the Dec­la­ra­tion of In­de­pen­dence, the Get­tys­burg Ad­dress and the Bill of Rights.

The city claims it took steps to avoid ap­pear­ing as though it was en­dors­ing a re­li­gion by plac­ing dis­claimers on the lawn stat­ing that the area was a pub­lic fo­rum for cit­i­zens to dis­play mon­u­ments re­lated to the city’s his­tory of law and gov­ern­ment and that the pri­vately funded mon­u­ments did not nec­es­sar­ily re­flect the opin­ions of the city.

In­for­ma­tion for this ar­ti­cle was con­trib­uted by Su­san Mon­toya Bryan of The As­so­ci­ated Press and by Michael R. Wick­line of the Arkansas Demo­crat-Gazette.

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