The local courthouse in Hobbs, New Mexico is home to one of those old Ten Commandments monuments that’s been up for several decades.
This one happens to be a stand-alone monument, which would likely make it illegal based on Supreme Court precedent, but it remains in place despite a warning letter from the Freedom From Religion Foundation written in 1994.
Atheist activist Jeremy Wood figured it’s about time to have another conversation about the legality of the monument, so he attended Tuesday night’s meeting of the Hobbs City Commission to speak his mind during the public comments. You can hear him speak around the 14:59 mark.
Wood talked about how the monument violates the Establishment Clause, how biblical teachings aren’t necessarily moral, and how religion itself has been used to justify bigotry. He specifically pointed out — and this is important — that the monument “represents a violation of the establishment clause as interpreted when incorporated in 1947,” and he’s right about that. While the Establishment Clause has been part of the First Amendment since just after our nation was founded, it didn’t apply to the states until 1947 with the case of Everson v. Board of Education. So it made sense for Wood to bring that up, since that’s the interpretation of the law that says this monument is illegal.
But check out what happens around 18:11, when Wood is done talking.
As a commissioner begins a brief interrogation of him, you hear laughter from another elected official, Garry Buie (second from the left), who later slaps his knee as if this is all the funniest thing he’s ever heard. He later yells out, “What about my rights?”
The person questioning Wood, Councilwoman Patricia Taylor, begins arguing with him about his 1947 claim, saying that the Bill of Rights was written long before then. That, of course, isn’t in dispute, which is why Wood (correctly) pointed out that the current interpretation of the Establishment Clause only began in 1947. Chalk it up to a misunderstanding, but Taylor’s ignorance is very evident here, and Wood is incredibly polite in not calling her out on it.
She then tells Wood, with utmost confidence, what he must do if the commission is misinterpreting the First Amendment so badly: “Well, I think you should see if you can get the Constitution rewrote.”
As if that’s the only way she’ll obey the law she’s taken an oath to uphold.
And then, just when you think it’s all over, Commissioner Marshall Newman (far left) chimes in to dismiss Wood with a blunt, “And I saw your photo in the newspaper today… so thank you very much.”
Wood told me that’s referring to a picture of him holding a “Black Lives Matter” sign during a Martin Luther King, Jr. parade earlier in the week. I guess, to Newman, supporting the civil rights of African Americans means you don’t deserve to be taken seriously.
Then at the very end of the meeting, around 1:17:00, Commissioner Joseph Calderon says in a brief speech, “… I hope we continue being — we will continue being a Christian community. I’m a Catholic and I’m a Christian.”
So just to recap: An atheist gave a speech at a local government meeting saying a monument outside the local courthouse was illegal. Of the six commissioners, one challenged his understanding of the Constitution (even though Wood was right), one just laughed without saying anything of substance, one wrote him off because he had held up a sign in support of Black Lives Matter, one talked about how Hobbs was a “Christian community,” and the others didn’t say a damn thing in his defense.
Wood also told me that, while the microphones didn’t pick it up, when he began his speech, Commissioner Buie tore up the copy of the speech and reference material that Wood had given everybody. Because of course he did. (Wood emailed a copy of the material to Buie after the meeting since he no longer had it. Buie used that opportunity to apologize, though it was too little too late.)
What a horrible group of elected officials. They should all be ashamed of themselves.
Not that it applies to this case, but New Mexico is already home to another Ten Commandments controversy involving a monument outside a municipal building in the city of Bloomfield. That case also centered around a stand-alone Christian monument that was eventually deemed illegal. The Supreme Court said last October that it would not hear a challenge to that decision.
(Thanks to Justin for the link)