Lemon Party! Las Cruces, New Mexico Prevails in Establishment Clause Case

The Las Cruces town logo

The Las Cruces town logo

While I am a rabid Atheist, and I despise government sponsorship of or entanglement with religion, I think that some of my fellow humanists take things a bit too far. Paul Weinbaum and Martin Boyd in Weinbaum v. Las Cruces, __F.3d__(10th Cir. 2008) went a little too far.

When the government endorses religion, that violates the Establishment Clause and should be prohibited. Displays of crucifixes, especially in a city seal, could very well be construed as a governmental endorsement of the christian faith. When government uses a religious symbol to try and cram that religion down the citizens’ throats, that violates the Establishment Clause.

However, when there is a legitimate historical reason for a religious display, that doesn’t offend the Establishment Clause.

Weinbaum and Boyd filed suit against the City of Las Cruces, New Mexico because the city used a symbol that contained three crucifixes. “Las Cruces” means “The Crosses” in Spanish. The court held:

Las Cruces’s unique name and history and the record in this case adequately establish according to requisite standards that the City and District’s challenged symbols were not intended to endorse christianity and do not have the effect of doing so. (source at 5)

The 10th gives us this summary of the evidence in coming to its conclusion:

Compelling evidence here establishes that the symbolism is not religious at all. Rather, it simply reflects the name of the City which, in turn, reflects a series of secular events that occurred near the site of the City. Unless one were to attack the very name of the City itself – an attack which is not advanced here – it is hardly startling that a City with the name “The Crosses” would be represented by a seal containing crosses. And indisputable evidence showed that even the name of the City reflected merely the cemetery, representing the violence in the area rather than proselytizing forces in general or a particular faith. So here, unlike in Robinson or Friedman, we have a secular symbol, which could be, and was, understood to be secular by the residents of the City. (source at 32)

As noted above, I am quite hostile to communities that try to force christianity (or any other religion) down the throats of innocent non-believers. However, we must leave room in our society for the proper use of religious symbolism, when that symbolism is merely historical or incidental to proper purposes — and it passes the Lemon test.

In Lemon v. Kurtzman, 403 U.S. 602 (1971), the supreme court gave us a three-part test to determine whether governmental conduct violates the Establishment Clause: (1) it must have a secular purpose, (2) the government action must have a principal or primary effect that neither advances nor inhibits religion, and (3) the government action may not foster an excessive governmental entanglement with religion.

Using this innocuous symbol as a nod to history, and not as an attempt to exclude non-christians clearly passed Lemon muster.

10 Responses to Lemon Party! Las Cruces, New Mexico Prevails in Establishment Clause Case

  1. Bob Cumbow says:

    The premise is wrong to begin with. A cross is a simple symbol formed by crossing two lines, and it is universal, with multiple significances, not solely Christian in meaning. A CRUCIFIX, by definition, is an image of a cross with a body on it–usually that of Jesus Christ, although an image of the crucified Spartacus would also be correctly called a “crucifix”. The symbols on the Las Cruces seal are crosses, not crucifixes; and their only religious significance is not inherent, but lies in whatever baggage the religious or anti-religious viewer may bring to them.

  2. Patrick says:

    Rabid atheist?

    How can you not know Marc? Christ, something set all this stuff in motion, you and me included, even if it was H. P. Lovecraft’s blind idiot god. It probably was H. P. Lovecraft’s blind idiot god based on everything I’ve seen.

    What is your evidence against the proposition that the universe was created by a blind idiot?

  3. And what is your evidence that it was not created by the flying spaghetti monster and his noodly appendages! :)

  4. iNonymous says:

    Oh, Randazza, you’re so edgy — capitalizing “athiest” yet putting a small c in “Christianity.” Subtle dig there.

    80% of California cities and counties are San ___ or Santa ____. It would be quite lulzy if the Ninth Circuit rule were to rule those names unconstitutional and start giving them more p.c. names like “Equalrightsfortransgenderedpersonsopolis”

  5. I’m glad you noticed that subtle dig. Fuck’em my people been oppressed, yo! Atheist pride in da house.

    I’m glad you made the point about “San” or “Santa.” I had intended to include that in my original post, but I guess I forgot. Even as an Atheist, I see no reason to change San Francisco to, I dunno, Darwin Francisco… I’m good with the christian remnants… we named the days of the week after Norse fairy tales, we named most of the months and planets after Greek fairy tales, no big deal to name cities after christian fairy tales. And… no need to go scrubbing the remnants of any fairy tale as if it were the name of Stalin or hitler.

  6. iNonymous says:

    And I think 99.999% of people, even hardcore athiests, would agree. There are more important things to get worked up about.

    One minor quibble, though — St. Francis is a historical figure, not a “fairy tale.” You may think he believed in fairy tales, but there’s no question that he was a living, breathing, person. The same is true for pretty much every other saint (St. Christopher excepted — he was clearly a fairy tale).

  7. Kamden Hogan says:

    It’s the name, but one that is unfortunately real. It also allows you to develop the Establishment Clause. I will share the Lemon test of it with you here.

  8. iNonymous is absolutely right. St. Francis was not only real… but someone who I greatly admire. In my personal set of beliefs, I don’t believe that St. Francis had any magical powers, but that doesn’t stop me from believing in him as a teacher.

  9. […] that any time the government uses a Latin cross, it is a per se establishment clause violation. (Example) Here, we can discern a plausible secular purpose. Considering first the evidence of the UHPA’s […]

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