The town of Bloomfield, New Mexico (population 8,112), launched a GoFundMe online crowd-funding site Aug. 13 to pay-off substantial penalties incurred in a losing legal battle to install an unconstitutional Ten Commandments monument in front of City Hall.
The Farmington Daily Times reported that officials hope they can raise the remaining $467,000 of $700,000 in plaintiff attorney fees and court costs Bloomfield was required to pay after the U.S. Supreme Court in 2017 declined to hear their appeal of a lower-court ruling that rejected the monument.
As of Aug. 28, the fundraising site had generated $1,670. The city has until June 30, 2021, to pay off the debt.
By deciding against considering the appeal of a 2014 10th Circuit Court of Appeals verdict, which ruled that the Bloomfield monument was unconstitutional and must be removed from government property, the Supreme Court effectively validated the circuit court decision. The Supreme Court generally does not explain its reasoning when declining to hear a particular case.
Since the high court ruling, the city moved the monument to the grounds of the Bloomfield First Baptist Church down the street. Other monuments remain at City Hall in honor of the Gettysburg Address, the Bill of Rights and the Declaration of Independence. They were installed after the Ten Commandments monument.
The original lawsuit against the city was filed in early 2012 after the monument was installed in 2011, and the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) represented two non-Christian Wiccan residents of Bloomfield in the suit (Felix v. Bloomfield) — Jane Felix and B.N. Coone. Wiccan adherents typically worship ancient deities of Old Stone Age hunter-gatherer groups.
Jonathan Scruggs, the main attorney for Alliance Defending Freedom, the city’s defender in the case, said he believed it would be a good test case for the Supreme Court.
“We felt that it was a decent case in terms of the fact that it related to historical documents and it wasn’t really a religious issue from our standpoint,” he told the Daily Times.
Except that the Ten Commandments is inherently a religious document because it directly derives from Christian scripture.
In a press release, ACLU Executive Director Peter Simonson lauded the final Supreme Court decision in the case:
Bloomfield city council members decided to pursue legal appeals up to the Supeme Court, despite being advised by the ACLU that their case was weak. Now, city taxpayers will be required to retire the city’s court-imposed legal debt from the case, minus whatever donations might be forthcoming from the GoFundMe site.
“This is a victory for the religious liberty of people everywhere. The Supreme Court’s decision to let the rulings against the monument stand sends a strong message that the government should not be in the business of picking and choosing which sets of religious belief enjoy special favor in the community. To be clear, we would defend the right of any church, homeowner or business to raise this monument on their own property. But we cannot tolerate a city government using taxpayer dollars to fund a monument that celebrates one religion above all others.”
City officials state in the GoFundMe site that they had “overwhelming support” from the community in resisting the ACLU’s move to have the Ten Commandments monument moved from City Hall “in an effort to protect and defend private citizens’ First Amendment rights.”
“Given the overwhelming public support during the litigation, the City is reaching out to concerned citizens in an effort to help crowd fund the remaining balance owed in attorneys’ fees. The city appreciates all of the support private citizens can offer.”
Not everyone in the city agrees. Local citizen Christine Williams posted this comment on the city’s GoFundMe page.
“This campaign is a lie. There was not ‘overwhelming public support’ during the litigation. We were told we would not be charged for the lawsuit because ‘private donations’ would be covering them. This is not private donations, this is you basically trying to tax us (again) for this. The city council should be held liable out of their own pockets. If they’re not in office now they should be sued by the city. We didn’t want the monument, we didn’t want the lawsuit and everything in this campaign is a lie.”
Still, one way or another, Bloomfield’s debt must be paid. It is right that trying to unconstitutionally force religion into publicly funded spaces should be prohibitively expensive.