A federal judge in New Mexico has dismissed a lawsuit that sought to stop the city of Las Cruces — Spanish for "the crosses" — from using an image of three crosses on its official logo.
In the late 16th century, explorer Don Juan de Onate led Spanish colonists through the area now known as Dona Ana County in southwestern New Mexico. Almost 150 years later, an Apache ambush in the same area left several travelers dead, and mourners marked the graves with crosses — giving rise to the name La Placita de Las Cruces, or "the Place of the Crosses."
Now home to New Mexico State University and a student population of about 16,000, Las Cruces — the second most populous city in the state — reflects the area's history in its official city logo, which depicts three overlapping crosses surrounded by a graphic representation of the sun. Appropriate enough, it might seem, for a community with a strong Spanish heritage located in the high, dry desert of the Southwest.
But not appropriate, evidently, for Paul Weinbaum, his daughter Olivia Weinbaum, and Martin Boyd, who viewed the logo as a violation of the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment — and brought suit against the city, seeking that the logo be banned. They claimed that government use of the crosses' image endorsed and advanced Christianity.
But on Thursday, November 9, US Federal District Court Judge Robert Brack dismissed the case while, at the same time, affirming the plaintiffs' right to bring such a suit. "Under any theory or application of the First Amendment to a governmental display of a religious symbol," wrote Brack, "the difficult question is to draw the line." Using the three crosses, he continued, could be considered secular because the original purpose of their use could not be established.
"When there is no evidence of the original purpose for adopting a practice, the government may propose possible secular justification for the challenged practice," wrote the federal judge. According to the Las Cruces Sun-News, Weinbaum and his fellow plaintiffs had been "vilified" in the community because of their legal pursuit. Brack addressed that in his 30-page opinion.
"People have suggested that if plaintiffs have these complaints, they should leave. No, they should not," Judge Brack wrote. "This is the United States of America. As concerned citizens and parents, plaintiffs have every right to raise their concerns in this court. The beauty of the system is that plaintiffs do not have to leave, that the complaint of those in the minority can and should be heard, and that we are all better for the hearing."
Las Cruces Mayor Bill Mattiace called the dismissal "great news." "[The logo] is really the signature and the spirit of what we call home, what we call Las Cruces," the mayor said.
Weinbaum has indicated he plans to appeal the ruling. He is also suing the Las Cruces Public Schools on similar grounds. That case is scheduled to go to trial on November 27.