By Ryan Lengerich
Prominently displayed on Tucumcari City Hall’s front lawn on E. Center Street is a seven-foot tall black marble Ten Commandments monument surrounded by three flag poles bearing the American, Mexico State and Tucumcari Rattlers flags.
On Aug. 28, a 2 1/2 ton granite Ten Commandment monument was removed from the Alabama state judicial building after a U.S. District court ruled the monument stood in violation of the U.S. Constitution’s principle of separating religion and government.
With the Alabama ruling serving as a potential precedent, the question is raised whether the 28 year old Tucumcari monument is safe at city hall.
As it stands
Two years ago, Alabama Chief Justice Roy Moore ordered the religious monument to be moved to the Montgomery building’s main lobby.
In Tucumcari, the structure was erected on the front lawn about ten yards from the city hall building and five feet from the sidewalk.
The proximity of the monument as well as its size could potentially make a difference when this type of structure is contested in court, said civil rights lawyer Donald Gilpin, of Gilpin and Keefe law office in Albuquerque.
“I think it is very similar,” Gilpin said. “Obviously the city is an arm of the state.”
Whether a monument outside city hall falls under the same constitutional guidelines as a state courthouse is another question. Any suit has a possibility of holding up at the local level, Gilpin said, but if appealed to a state or federal level the monuments chances of holding ground at city hall decrease.
“The same principles apply, it is property owned by the state or municipality, I would think the same kind of guidelines could be argued,” Gilpin said. “My guess is if it got challenged and looked at real hard it would fall under the same scrutiny and probably not stand.”
Whether the Tucumcari monument would demand removal is irrelevant, Gilpin said, unless someone in the area feels compelled to challenge it.
Despite the precedent set in Alabama, Gilpin said it does not appear monuments throughout the country will suddenly be ripped down.
Joe Conn, a spokesperson for Americans United for the Separation of Church and State, agrees.
AU is one group that sued to have the Alabama monument removed. Conn said his group has no interest in systematically seeking out and challenging monuments nationwide.
“If someone complains about a religious symbol in front of city hall, that is when we get involved,” Conn said. “We’re certainly not against the Ten Commandments.
We do believe this country is better if there is a separation of religion and government.”
He said the group’s legal department considers each complaint and decides whether to take action.
Many city residents show no hesitation in supporting the City Hall monuments. Tucumcari attorney Tim O’Quinn said the founding fathers relied on their Judeo-Christianity as a rule.
“How dare a human being tell God his laws are offensive,” O’Quinn said. “I believe very strongly that the Ten Commandments should be there.”
City Manager Richard Primrose said he does not consider the monument a controversy in Tucumcari.
“Even with all the national attention I have not had anyone come up and have any adverse opinion on it,” Primrose said. “I have had people come up and say they like it there.”
City resident Jim Collins said he doesn’t see the justification in removing any Ten Commandment monument from a government building.
“I mean what is wrong the Ten Commandments, they need to show me something wrong with them,” Collins said, adding his disgust with the Alabama ruling. “That is a very serious step in the wrong direction.”
History and Precedent
In 1975 Aerie 3526 of the Fraternal Order of Eagles donated the Monument to Tucumcari. Similar tablets exist throughout the country including on the city hall lawn in Clovis. That monument was provided in 1967.
FOE donated many of the monuments in the 1950s as part of a promotion for the Cecil B. DeMille film “The Ten Commandments.”
FOE Grand Secretary Bob Wahls said many structures were also donated in the 1960s and 70s before price of marble escalated. According to Wahls, the Tucumcari chapter went defunct in 1997.
In Everett, Wash. a monument donated by the FOE in the 1950s that once stood at old city hall, now the police station — has come under fire. Conn’s group, AU, filed suit on behalf of an Everett resident. The case is still pending.
That case is drawing comparisons to a similar case in Elkhart, Ind. That city placed a monument donated by the FOE on their city hall lawn in 1958. Following a four year court battle, A federal appeals court ruled the monument to be taken down. In May 2001, the Supreme Court declined to hear the case on appeal. However, justices Rehnquist, Scalia and Thomas each publicly disagreed with the court’s decision not to hear the case.
Conn said his group has not had any discussions with the FOE concerning the monuments that have been spread around the country.
In Tucumcari, Primrose said he hopes controversy continues to evade the city.
“Hopefully nobody will push the issue and allow us to keep the Ten Commandments there,” Primrose said. “I personally don’t feel it is harming anyone.”