Defending Its Heritage

TIJERAS, N.M. — If the American Civil Liberties Union was looking for an easy win in its campaign to excise Christian symbols from public life, targeting Tijeras, N.M., was a miscalculation.

With a population of less than 500 people on the far side of the Sandia and Manzano mountains from Albuquerque, Tijeras attracts little attention from New Mexicans, let alone national organizations. That's why the community was shocked to find itself the target of the American Civil Liberties Union.

Yet attention it got, all because the village's official seal contains the image of a rosary, commemorating the community's origins with the Franciscan missionaries.

According to the ACLU, it also constitutes an illegal endorsement of religion. Tijeras must remove the rosary from the seal or face an expensive lawsuit the community can't win, said Peter Simonson, executive director of the group's New Mexico office. “The legal precedent is very clear on this matter,” he said.

While the ACLU has chosen not to oppose the three crosses in the seal of the city of Los Cruces because of “specific historical precedent,” he said the rosary on the seal of Tijeras is “just religious favoritism giving the government's endorsement to the Catholic Church.”

The Tijeras symbolism is especially menacing because it includes the rosary with a conquistador's helmet and sword, Simonson said. “The most likely to be offended are the Native Americans, because this symbol is not strictly about religion but how it was used in conquering the native population.”

Although Simonson said he's confident of victory, whether the civil liberties union is able to go forward depends on whether a village resident can be found to pursue the litigation. “This is no small thing, since there could be ostracism or retaliation by the community for just trying to protect their rights,” he said.

Simonson has reason to be confident of victory. In 1985, the ACLU successfully challenged the seal for Bernalillo County, where Tijeras is located, because it incorporated a cross and the Latin motto, In hoc signo vinces (In this sign is victory), first seen in a vision by the Roman Emperor Constantine before the crucial battle of the Milvian Bridge in Rome in 312 and later used as a motto of the conquistadors who brought European civilization to what is now the southwestern United States.

Hispanic Culture

However, if the ACLU was expecting that the mere threat of litigation would persuade Tijeras, they're wrong, said Mayor Gloria Chavez.

“My initial reaction to receiving the ACLU notice was disappointment because our seal is very pretty and it includes symbols representing everything the history of this town is about, but I thought we couldn't fight the ACLU.”

Chavez said it was the response from the town that changed her mind.

“It was overwhelming” in its support for keeping the rosary. This isn't just about religion, it's about the community's Hispanic history and culture, and she said the village is ready to fight to defend them both.

The public opposition to backing down and the David-and-Goliath aspect of the confrontation helped in another way. It created media attention and attracted the Alliance Defense Fund to volunteer its assistance, Chavez said.

“We're just a small village and can't afford an expensive lawsuit,” she said. “With the Alliance Defense Fund ready to pay the costs, we're able to fight.”

The ACLU, on the other hand, has the advantage of attracting donations that are tax-deductible.

Specializing in defense of religious liberties, support for pro-life advocacy and legislation in defense of marriage, the Phoenix-based attorneys said they were ready to provide a defense against any lawsuit the ACLU might bring.

Jordan Lorence, senior counsel for the fund, said they just won a New York case where a school district was refusing to rent school property for religious services even though they were available for other public and private events, and he said the Alliance Defense Fund was the leading litigant in the lawsuit to stop the mayor of San Francisco from issuing same-sex “marriage” licenses.

Lorence said Tijeras represents an ongoing campaign by the ACLU to “seek and destroy all religious references by government.” Although the organization often wins, sometimes they don't. By displaying several items depicting the history and life of the community, he said the rosary in the Tijeras seal “is a passive symbol that acknowledges history without attempting to establish a religion.”

Long Haul

However long the standoff continues, Lorence said, “We're here for the long haul because our long-term goal is to see a more balanced approach to the establishment clause of the Constitution.”

So is the Thomas More Law Center, which is appealing dismissal of its federal civil rights lawsuit against Los Angeles County, whose officials surrendered their own cross without a fight, in 2004. In a seal dominated by Pomona, the Roman goddess of fruitfulness, there was a small cross representing the birth of the city as a Franciscan mission.

By readily acceding to the demand of the ACLU to remove it, the county showed hostility toward Christians, said Richard Thompson, chief counsel for the center. Thompson said he wants them to recognize that Christians won't back down anymore.

He said hostility to Christianity has become customary with the support of the federal courts, which have collaborated in a “concerted campaign to eliminate religion from the public square.”

Thompson said, “Clearly, the cross and other symbols are religious in the sense that they represent religion and the effect that it has had on America. But this is acknowledgement of a historical fact, that this nation was founded on religious principles. It doesn't constitute establishment of a religion.”

Although the campaign against religion has been ongoing since the 1960s, he said, “Americans are religious people and American institutions pre-supposed religious beliefs. There's more understanding on the part of American citizens that this is a culture war that will be fought in the courts, and there's more support for organizations like ours that are willing to engage in that battle.”

As for Tijeras, “the seal has been here 30 years and it celebrates our heritage,” said Mayor Chavez. “It represents settlers who moved here 400 years ago. That's something the people of this village don't want erased.”

Philip S. Moore is based in Vail, Arizona.