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Arkansas joins 22 other states to back hearing over Commandments

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Photographs by Democrat-Gazette file photo

Attorney General Leslie Rutledge is shown in this 2016 file photo.

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 Republican 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.

Photos by Emma Pettit
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Republican Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton (center) is shown with his wife Angela Paxton, in Houston, Thursday, July 27, 2017.

A Section on 08/12/2017

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