The Challenge to Bloomfield New Mexico’s Ten Commandments Monument

Heather Greene —  March 16, 2014 — 13 Comments

It is all over the mainstream news from local papers to The Washington Post: “Wiccans Sue City over Ten Commandments.” Yes this story is true. The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of New Mexico filed a lawsuit in February on behalf of two Wiccan practitioners who were offended by the installation of a Ten Commandments monument on City Hall property in their hometown of Bloomfield, New Mexico. The lawsuit went before a U.S. District Court Monday drawing national media attention.

bloomfield nm

©jorndorf/roughshelter.com

The narrative isn’t new but the players are. Wiccans fill the plaintiffs role instead the widely expected Atheists or Humanists. In this case, the two plaintiffs are Bloomfield residents Janie Felix and Buford Coone, both members of the Order of the Cauldron of the Sage. Janie is a certified clinical herbalist and High Priestess of the group. In 2000 she moved to Bloomfield New Mexico  where she began teaching Wicca 101 and herbalism at the local metaphysical shop. She says:

I quickly found there were many like-minded folks, some not knowing where to turn, some practicing solitaries and some merely dabbling. Over a period of time we formed a spiritual group, and eventually a formal coven.

Janie Felix

Janie Felix

Janie’s home now serves as the covenstead with a permanent ritual site in the backyard. That site and Buford’s home are both less than 2 miles from City Hall where the problems all began.

On April 3, 2007, Bloomfield’s Councilor Kevin Mauzy “made a presentation of a monument to display the Ten Commandments in front of Bloomfield City Hall serving as a historical and art display for the city.” As noted in the official meeting minutes, the proposal was approved and the funds were to come from “private donations from the community.” In testimony this past week, The Albuquerque Journal reports Mauzy saying, “[The monument] was not for religious purposes. It was for historical purposes and to beautify the city.”

After the approval, the Council adopted a resolution permitting private “citizens, groups and organizations” to sponsor displays on City Hall’s lawn. The official resolution outlined the scope and approval process for such an installation. For example one requirement states that all displays must reflect the “history and heritage of the City’s law and government.”

There was an almost immediate outcry from people of many religious backgrounds. At the 2007 meeting, the City Manager urged the Council to delay the monument’s approval until legal concerns were addressed. Opponents spoke at council meetings, sent letters-to-the-editor and signed petitions. One Bloomfield citizen even launched a blog called: “Bloomfield NM Ten Commandments Monument.” In one of the few entries, the writer includes a published letter to editor of The Farmington Daily Times. His words prophetically state:

Perhaps saddest of all, the City Council will no doubt cost the small town of Bloomfield large amounts of taxpayer dollars in legal fees in an attempt to defend this unconstitutional course.

Despite the myriad protests, the monument was erected in June 2011.

Present at the unveiling was Debra Dogget, volunteer coordinator of Ardantane Pagan Learning Center, former Bloomfield resident and former member of the Order of the Cauldron of the Sage. Debra says, “It was very much a religious ceremony … with a great deal of talk about the Ten Commandments being the foundation of law in the US.”

In the ACLU’s complaint , Buford Coone is recorded as saying the “display shows that the City favors the Christian religion and supports Christianity over other religions [and] … violates the U.S. Constitution and the New Mexico Constitution.” In the same document, Janie Felix says, “[the monument] sends a message of exclusion to those who do not adhere to that particular religion.”

Watching the situation from her own home in New Mexico is Amber K, a Wiccan Priestess and executive director of Ardantane.  She says:

New Mexico is home to hundreds of different religious faiths, traditions, denominations and sects, who should be able to expect that government agencies will perform its duties in an unbiased, even-handed, secular manner, respecting no creed above any other. New Mexicans can be proud that citizens of many cultures and beliefs live together in mutual respect; the Bloomfield monument threatens and disrespects that fine tradition.

Debra Doggett

Debra Doggett

Amber’s statement supports Janie’s own observations about the region. She notes that there are Muslims, Roman Catholics, Buddhists, Taoists, Atheists, Baptists, other Protestant denominations and, in nearby Farmington, a Unitarian Universalist Fellowship. In addition, the region has at least two CUUPS chapters, Ardantane Pagan Learning Center and Covenant of the Goddess’ Albquerque-based local council Chamisa. Janie also adds that the area boasts “a strong presence of Native Americans following traditional paths.”

Despite this diversity, both Janie and Debra agree that the immediate Bloomfield area has become more religiously conservative. Debra says:

The climate in Bloomfield, at least for those who work for the city, is very much controlled by Christianity and those who don’t tow that line are very much in fear of losing their jobs. There [were] many more folks who were approached to be plaintiffs … but several of them work for the City of Bloomfield and they fear for their jobs … They knew they would lose them if they agreed to sue.

But why sue? Why not simply fund a monument per the city’s resolution?  Debra points out that news articles got that point wrong. She says that there “is no longer any room for more” monuments. “The group that funded the Ten Commandments has [used] up” all the allotted space.

©jorndorf/roughshelter.com

©jorndorf/roughshelter.com

“That group” is the Four Corners Historical Monument Project which was led by councilor Kevin Mauzy himself. Twenty-one days after the 2011 monument ceremony, the Council amended the 2007 resolution stressing the limits of usable lawn space. Later that year, the group installed two other monuments, the Declaration of Independence and the Gettysburg Address, within that limited space.

Was the original monument actually the city council’s endorsement of the private religious beliefs of its sitting councilors?  The ACLU believes so. The organization has been watching since 2007. After sending letters-of-concern and launching an investigation, the ACLU finally decided to file a lawsuit on Feb. 9, 2014. According to the filed complaint:

The City of Bloomfield accorded preferential treatment to the monument’s sponsors, disregarding many city ordinances and policy requirements that would regulate the monument’s installation. Public records requests also reveal that Mauzy sought and received legal advice on the monument from the Alliance Defense Fund, an organization that often advocates for the merging of government and religion.

On Monday, March 10, the case went to trial before U.S. District Judge James A. Parker in Albuquerque. Janie and Buford were both there to testify. The trial ended Thursday but the Judge is not expected to make a ruling for several weeks or even months.

On advisement from her attorneys, Janie was unable to comment further on the case. However she did say that she will be happy to share her experiences with The Wild Hunt at a future date. Until then we will have to wait to see how the next chapter in the story is written.

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Heather Greene

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Heather is a freelance writer and Pagan spirit living in the Deep South. She has served as Public Information Officer for Covenant of the Goddess and worked extensively with Lady Liberty League. Heather's work has been published in Circle Magazine and elsewhere. She has a masters degree in Film Theory, Criticism and History with a background in the performing and visual arts.
  • michele warch

    Interesting. Thanks for the article. I want to be sure that I understand…. The ACLU filed the lawsuit. So, the local Wiccan community is assisting and testifying but not actually the originator of the legal action?

    • Shea Thomas

      There has to be a named plaintiff for a case to proceed, and the ACLU (by itself) does not have standing to sue – unlike local residents who are affected by the monument. Thus the inclusion of two Wiccan plaintiffs.

      • michele warch

        Thank you for the clarification.

  • Medeina Ragana

    Considering that the Ten Commandments are watered-down versions of Hammurabi’s Code, which of course, was created by a pagan religion…

    • http://www.cernowain.com/ cernowain greenman

      And Hammurabi’s Code was based upon the Code of Ur-Nammu (who died 2095 bce) that was written in Sumerian. We Pagans go way back!

      • Lēoht “Sceadusawol” Steren

        Once upon a time, everyone was pagan (non-Christian).

        When everyone’s pagan, no one is.

        • Cernowain Greenman

          Leot, my reference wasn’t specifically to “non-Christians”, but to ancient polytheistic cultures who had the smarts to develop legal codes. You’re right, though, about “when everyone’s Pagan”. While everyone that was living 3000 years ago could be broudly described as “Pagan”, there were lots of differences among cultures. Some were polytheistic, some not. Some were animists, some where not.
          The whole point is that those “tablets written with the finger of God” (according to Charles Heston and Demile), were basically copies of previous legal codes written long before by polytheistic societies.

  • Hecate_Demetersdatter

    Heather, thanks for an informative report. It will be interesting to see how this one comes out.

  • Deborah Bender

    The ACLU has a good track record with these kinds of cases, and the resources to appeal (otherwise it wouldn’t have taken the case). It’s almost always small local governments that do this kind of thing, IMHO because the law is settled. The action on imposing the views of one religion on everybody at the state level is in the area of the rights to contraception and abortion.

    Perhaps the motivation of the organizations that are installing copies of the 10 C in courthouses and other civic property is trolling. They know that their actions won’t stand up in court, but they get attention, waste other people’s time and money, and reinforce the persecution narrative that these people are selling.

    It’s not a totally bad thing, in that it stimulates an immune response in the body politic. Look at all the different religious and civic groups in and around Bloomfield that are now aware of threats to religious freedom and allying to repel those threats.

  • Charles Cosimano

    Such monuments are important. It is so easy to forget which commandment you are scheduled to break and having them there for easy reference makes remembering much easier.

  • Abby Mennelly

    Thank you, very interesting ofnoblekind.com

  • Piper

    Well in NM sanity does prevail…sometimes. In this case, The council should have their, Burros, handed to them. In every reading, including hometown newspapers, they come off as trying to do an end run to get the 10 commandments posted. Heck a nice model of the Emerald Tablet http://darkbooks.org/pp.php?v=1048323033 would have looked nice.

    But Sanity can prevail as in http://religionclause.blogspot.com/2008/09/10th-circuit-no-establishment-clause.html

    but we were to few to save the Swastika from the JDL and Tiny Annoyance, the then governor, so Native Symbol and history bit the PC dust

  • Franklin_Evans

    This is nothing like a once-and-done issue. We have such broadly stated laws because they provide a framework within which every specific case can bring a challenge or claim protection. No single case ever imposes a precedent on all other such cases at this level. It might inform future cases, but never decide them in advance.