Schools await ruling in logo lawsuit

By Jason Gibbs and Jose L. Medina, Las Cruces Sun-News, November 28, 2006

LAS CRUCES The suit over Las Cruces Public Schools' use of three crosses in logos and public displays now awaits a federal judge's decision.

U.S. District Judge Robert Brack heard a day full of testimony and closing arguments Monday in the 3-year-old suit before announcing shortly after 5 p.m. that he would render a decision "as soon as possible."

Las Crucen Paul Weinbaum, a retired teacher, brought the suit against LCPS in 2003. He argued that the district's use of Christian crosses on its maintenance vehicles violated the establishment clause of the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution by using public money to promote religion.

Weinbaum has never taught in Las Cruces.

Weinbaum also argued against a sculpture depicting three crosses located at the Field of Dreams and a mural at Booker T. Washington Elementary, along with the school district's policy on religion.

Only the Washington Elementary mural and the maintenance vehicle logos are being considered in this case. The other two counts -- the district's policy and the Field of Dreams sculpture -- were thrown out and ruled constitutional prior to trial.

Weinbaum, who is not an attorney but is representing himself in the case, often seemed unsure of procedures and, on at least a couple of occasions, was reminded by Brack not to stray from the two issues in question -- the Washington elementary mural and logos on maintenance vehicles.

In his opening remarks Weinbaum made it clear that his fight is about the U.S. Constitution and not about religion.

"It's been a long trail and I've been accused of a lot of things," he said. "... the only thing I ask the court is they be an advocate of the First Amendment ... .

"The evidence is going to show the school district has violated the First Amendment," he said.

Weinbaum's only witness was himself. While on the stand he responded to questions he had pre-written for himself. He testified that he and his school-aged daughter have felt harassed by the use of a logo he feels is used to proselytize.

"When there is a constant bombardment of religious symbols, the intent is obvious," said Weinbaum.

Weinbaum's case took a major blow when he admitted under oath he only had his observations, not facts, as evidence to back up his claims.

"Do you have any facts that Las Cruces Public Schools is proselytizing Christianity when they use ... (three crosses) on their emblem?" the school district's attorney, William "Rusty" Babington asked Weinbaum, who responded he didn't.

Babington also pressed Weinbaum on whether he had any evidence or had spoken to anyone who said the purpose of maintenance vehicle logos is to promote religion and that their use is not secular.

"I've never met any non-Christian school officials," Weinbaum responded.

As to the Washington elementary mural, Weinbaum said he had no information that the artist intended to proselytize when he included crosses.

Babington pointed out that art can be reflective of the community and referenced three crosses located half a mile away from the school at the corner of Solano Drive and Main Street.

Monday afternoon, former LCPS coordinator for visual and performing arts John Schutz outlined the process by which the mural was created, saying the artistic input was solely that of children in a federally funded after-school program.

The children were seeking to depict the school and community history, including the use of the three crosses that are just down the road, he said. Other images depict the Organ Mountains, yuccas and other area hallmarks, he said.

"I don't see anything that is culturally or historically out of place in that mural," Schutz said.

John Hunner, a New Mexico State University history professor who researched the origin of the name Las Cruces as well as the use of three crosses, admitted the use of "powerful religious symbols" on public vehicles would be out of line in another city, but was not unusual given the historical significance of the symbol for Las Cruces.

During his closing statements, Weinbaum had to stop briefly to compose himself after being overcome with emotion.

"I'm saying there is an element trying to push their religion on me and my daughter," he said. "If people want to put religious symbols on their car or truck, they have that right."

Weinbaum filed a similar suit against the city of Las Cruces for its uses of a logo that includes Christian crosses. That case was thrown out earlier this month partly because it couldn't be establishment if the logo was initially adopted to promote religion.

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