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Foundation asks city, NMJC to take down, remove religious items

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Foundation asks city, NMJC to take down, remove religious items

Local members of the Freedom From Religion Foundation have requested religious items removed from local government buildings in Lea County and sent a complaint regarding the City of Hobbs’ involvement in a recent community event.

A member of the group complained to New Mexico Junior College recently regarding decorative crosses seen in public view on campus. Hobbs resident and foundation member Jeremy Wood asked the Hobbs City Commission at a recent meeting to remove the Ten Commandments monument at Hobbs City Hall. And earlier this week, a lawyer with the foundation, Christopher Line, sent a complaint to the City of Hobbs regarding its sponsorship of the Martin Luther King, Jr., event that took place on Jan. 15.

Kelvin Sharp, president of NMJC, said he became aware in June that someone visiting the campus was taking pictures of items in buildings.

“Dennis Kelley, the facilities manager, walked this visitor around the campus and the visitor took notes of where the crosses were,” Sharp said. “Then, in June, I received a letter from him registering a complaint about the crosses. He said he observed numerous crosses of Christianity on display in both buildings he visited and he objected to them because they were not in a personal workspace.”

Sharp responded to the letter, saying that he had met with staff and on advice of the school’s attorney, the crosses were either removed or relocated.

At about that same time, Sharp said he received a letter from the foundation signed by Line.

“We ask you to remove the crosses on display at New Mexico Junior College immediately. Please inform us in writing of the steps you are taking to resolve this matter,” the letter read.

The letter was accompanied by a newsletter from the foundation. The newsletter contained articles about the court cases the foundation had won in circumstances similar to that at NMJC and the letter contained a listing the names of the cases it had won.

On June 18, Sharp replied, “Please be advised the areas cited in the letter to NMJC, dated June 18, 2018, have been addressed.”

Sharp said that part of his job as president is to protect the school against unnecessary legal exposure.

“And since the law is clear on the subject of displaying religious objects in places paid for by tax money, I just walked around and talked to each person (who had crosses displayed),” he said. “I told them they didn’t have to take their crosses home, but to put them some place in their offices where they could enjoy them, but where they wouldn’t be visible to the public. And the college went right on with its business of educating students.”

The issue with the Ten Commandments at Hobbs City Hall started during the public comments portion of the Jan. 16 city commission meeting. The commission listened to Wood, who asked that the monument, located on the west side of city hall, be taken down.

Wood gave the commission historical examples of violations of church and state as his reasons for the request.

“In 1968, just two years before the date engraved on the monument outside, Mr. Maurice Bessinger lost his appeal to the SCOTUS (Supreme Court of the United States) fighting a suit brought against him for refusing service to a black woman at his barbecue restaurant claiming that the Civil Rights Act was invalid because it contravenes the will of God,” Wood told the commission. “It is that same God, which so boldly, yet erroneously asserts to be my God on the stone outside which has been installed, moved and maintained at public expense.”

“Politicians in towns like Hobbs have used public resources to promote their own religious beliefs and, in doing so, have denied their most vulnerable constituents their first and 14th Amendment rights,” Wood stated. “Now is the time the city must decide whether it will promote itself as a community, which thrives on diversity and egalitarian ideals, or (a) safe haven for ethnic and religious nationalists, which puts the religion of its majority population above the law. Please take down the monument.”

Toward the end of his statement, Commissioner Garry Buie began to laugh out loud, just as Commissioner Pat Taylor asked Wood some follow-up questions. At the end of the discussion between Buie, Taylor and Wood ended with Buie asking Wood, “What about my rights?” of which Wood did not respond.

After the meeting, Buie was asked what it was that caused his laughter.

“It’s the statements that were made,” Buie said. “Individuals saying it affects them that the Ten Commandments are up there. It would affect me if they weren’t up there. He’s taking my rights away too. I don’t appreciate that. I think it is something that we all need to look at.”

The third issue came forth when Interim City Manager Manny Gomez received a letter from Line regarding the MLK event. The letter describes that a “concerned Hobbs resident” contacted the foundation about a “city sponsored” event that ended with a post-march celebration including “religious music performed by a gospel group and numerous speakers that made reference to god and Jesus.”

“It is laudable that the city is celebrating Dr. King and promoting unity within the community. However, including gospel music and religious messages in the celebration is inappropriate.”

As Wood did with the commission, the letter offered a variety of church vs. state court cases supporting the view. Wood was a participant of the march and helped hold a “Black Lives Matter” flag during the event.

City attorney Mike Stone gave a comment regarding two complaints Friday afternoon.

“We will evaluate the complaints in an appropriate manner,” Stone said.

A phone message from the News-Sun was left for Wood and no response was given by press time on Friday.

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