Paul Weinbaum: Suing Las Cruces, New Mexico over its use of crosses

As told to by Paul Weinbaum, November 2006

Paul Weinbaum has filed two lawsuits with two different partners over the three crosses in the Las Cruces, New Mexico city symbol. Yes, standing alone "las cruces" means ‘the crosses’ in Spanish. But Weinbaum says there is no proof for the crosses' defenders' claim that the crosses symbolize early settler deaths and are not "religious." On the other hand, he says in recent years there has been a very religiously motivated campaign to proliferate the crosses. So, summoning the courage he developed growing up Jewish in the South and from his military service experiences, he sued to defend the First Amendment. Here is his story as told to

Jesse Chavez and I formed an alliance after constantly being rebuffed as individuals by the City of Las Cruces and the Las Cruces Public Schools Board of Education about violations of the First Amendment and separation of religion from government. We thought that suing the school board might be an easier proposition, due to our limited experience with the law and because there have been many rulings against school boards. We filed our federal pro se law suit in September 2003. Our first big victory came when the judge ruled that our suit was not frivolous.

In the meanwhile, our area was declared a federal judicial district by itself due to the volume of drug and immigration cases and a federal judge was assigned. With criminal cases having priority over civil cases, attention to our case has suffered. Our original judge was in Albuquerque and he assigned the case to the new judge. After a long wait we appeared before the new judge for a status conference and he admitted the school district case had "languished". September of 2004 and we were waiting on a court date for arguments. We all agreed on a Summary Judgment with no jury trial. The original senior judge stayed the case pending a resolution of the McCleary and Van Orden cases before the Supreme Court. The new judge pulled a surprise and ordered a Rule 706 history expert report from a local university professor that we believed could only aid the defense since they had not provided any historical rebuttal to our submissions, all gathered from public sources.

The report has since been delivered to the court and was filed before the parties had a chance to review it. Responses to the report from the plaintiffs in both cases, jointly in the school district case and individually in the city case will be filed soon. The Rule 706 expert report is a convoluted sophomoric effort that does not offer any resolution to the arguments we have presented. The main story line to justify the use of the three crosses is that the only people dying between El Paso and Santa Fe, over 300 miles of trails for the three hundred years before statehood were killed by "heathen" Apache; all dead were good Catholics; white crosses were erected over their graves; the crosses are not religious; the crosses represent the modern history and people of Las Cruces. The logistics doesn't add up, the city cannot provide one historical document to substantiate the stories, nor are there any names of dead available or grave sites. The one true document is a published, currently available, 1847-48 diary of Susan Magoffin, who reported she saw “a rude cross” marking 15 ten-year-old Mexican soldier’s graves. These graves were somewhere in the local desolation and the “a rude cross” was the only marker. And there are no markers now anywhere of any type.

The Chamber of Commerce with its three crosses logo and the city of Las Cruces have been promoting "The City of Crosses"" instead of the "City of Crossroads" (The Las Cruces Convention and Visitors Bureau promotes “Las Cruces – The Crossroads” on highway billboards east and west of the city, on its website, and in its brochures.) for so long with unverified historical stories that we have several generations of misinformed citizens. So anyone who disagrees is encouraged to leave and go back where you came from. Or they mail you religious tracts as encouragement for conversion.

There is a stronger presence of the Catholic Church in Las Cruces since the area became a separate Diocese from El Paso, Texas, in the 1970’s or ‘80’s with the Bishop’s office here. I had a pleasant meeting with the Bishop about my project and the First Amendment last year. I wanted him to know that I was not attacking him, his church, Catholics, or his beliefs. I explained to him that it was all about religious freedom under the law as spelled out in the First Amendment, etc. I told him the symbols on the public buildings had to be removed like the symbols on the public schools property as they violated the laws, were insulting, and made some of us second-class citizens.

The Bishop explained that his religion required people to be good, do good deeds, and set the example for people to follow. He said that was the way they attract new members.

My surprise guest appearance on talk show

After the word got out that the complaint had been filed against the city, one of the local radio stations that broadcasts programs from the Fox Network renamed their morning talk show something like, “Save the Crosses Morning Talk Show”. Of course, they never met any of us or invited us to appear on the show. They printed up round bumper stickers with the city logo of crosses in the center and “Save the Crosses” and the station call letters around the edge. According to the station thousands were sold for $5.00 each. Profits supposedly going into the city war chest. The first one I ever saw was on the Mayor’s car about two months after the promotion sale started.

The standard programming was a constant stream of bashing me on the daily show with assistance from the listening audience call-ins. The show started at 7:00 am daily and I walked into the station at 7:15 am one day. Someone greeted me and I said I was here for the talk show and they sent me in. I walked in and sat down just like I had been there before. While the two hosts were yakking away I handed the one basher my driver’s license to show my name so as to not interrupt the show.

They quickly went to a song and the host said he couldn’t believe that I just walked in. I said, “Well, you have been talking about me for weeks and I thought it time for us to meet.” We had a nice chat on the air, he admitted he was speechless and then I was invited to the next room where another talk show was going on. They had been warned that I was there and tried to give me a hot reception. But it didn’t work. I stuck to the purpose of the lawsuit and told them if you don’t stop trying to bash me I’m leaving. They calmed down some.

I was invited back for an hour long question and answer simulcast on the FM and AM stations. It went very well and the informative-style questions were provided by the owner. I told them the purpose of the Constitution is to protect the minority from the majority -- something a lot of people either don’t know or don’t care about. I believe that the economy has developed on the sale of "The City of Crosses" as a religious bastion with total disregard of the First Amendment by the permanent installation of the three crosses on every piece of public property. The city has paid at least one company, Milkin, to produce several reports of how great Las Cruces is compared to other similar sized cities. Then these stories get picked up by news agencies and promote Las Cruces. The housing boom is staggering and the rule ‘let the buyer beware’ should be the city motto.

Something was noticeably amiss after the new judge took over. One could tell there was a bias toward the plaintiffs by the shuffle of the paperwork. Then there was the violation of the Supreme Court’s ruling in Troxel about the rights of parents. Now why would a federal judge tell me that I cannot speak for my six-year-old daughter when I told him I didn't want her harassed by government proselytizing in the public schools? We moved to recuse the judge on the grounds that he supported a private Christian school, referenced G-d in court during sentencing, and his bias toward the plaintiffs was obvious to me by several rulings issued before they were due, but he denied the motion. An appeal to this denial has been submitted to the 10th Circuit Court.

In the school district case we did depositions on the Schools Superintendent, and four other officials. Their answers about the large crosses artwork purchased with tax money for the stadium, and other uses of the crosses by the school district were vague and all said they did it because the city did it. In all five of the depositions they said they understood the separation of church and state principle. One said it means, "Don't preach while you teach."

I gave the attorney a plan for the school board to save face and we would drop the suit. In the typical belligerent attitude around here, he said he didn't understand what I was talking about. And he didn't want to discuss it. And we didn't. The state Attorney General ignored my investigation report about the secret purchasing of the artwork and the State Auditor used an accounting report from the year before to verify that there was nothing unusual in the books.

Case against the City

While the school case “languished”, I turned my attention to the city, which was very busy planting crosses on everything and everywhere. Dr. Martin Boyd, MD, had been writing letters to the only weekly newspaper for several years when we met for coffee. I told him I was going to file against the city as I can't wait forever for the school case to be resolved since ‘delay' seems to be the byword. Did he know anyone who might want to join in the suit? Martin said include him.. We filed the federal pro se lawsuit in September 2005 on the first annual federal Constitution Day celebration. Now there are two federal pro se lawsuits pending against the City of Las Cruces and the Las Cruces Public Schools.

There will be another suit against Doña Ana County, eventually, for the addition in 2000 of a golden, dripping cross that "represents our sunshine" to the county seal.

One of the interesting aspects of Martin Boyd and I filing our federal pro se lawsuit against the city of Las Cruces, the Attorney General, the District Attorney, and the Governor, is that very few people have asked us "Why? " They all know why; Jew, Muslim, and Christian alike. The city and state have been trying to get at least two types of the Christian religion, Catholicism and fundamentalism, in the schools since 1978, when the NM State legislature passed Statute 22-5-4.1, authorizing local school districts to implement a daily moment of silence in the public schools. The judge who declared it unconstitutional in 1983 warned that its supporters in Las Cruces will work until they find a way around his ruling. I believes that the silent message of the crosses is the way around the ruling.

Before I retired in Las Cruces...

How I came to be spending my retirement suing the local government and school system is explained by my history. I was born in Knoxville, Tennessee, where we lived as my father helped construct Norris Dam while working as an engineer.

About four months after the Japanese bombed Hawaii my father put on his uniform and was shipped to India to work on constructing airfields for the Allies. My mother packed up my older brother and me and we all moved back to my father's hometown of Sheffield, Alabama, where his mother, father, and two brothers lived; one brother later went to war.

My father's mother was born in Tuscumbia, Alabama, a nearby town. Her family arrived there from Germany in the 1860’s. They lived two houses from the Keller family and my grandmother played with Helen until she moved away with Ms. Sullivan. My grandfather came with his family from Nieszawa, Poland, in 1878 and they settled near Nashville. They married around 1905.

I do believe Tuscumbia was, maybe still is, a sundown town and before dark the African Americans went their way and the Weinbaum's went to Sheffield. You could hear the warning steam whistle between the two cities at 6:00 pm daily. I recently read a report that there were "only" two lynchings in Sheffield's history, but another account says there were three. Tuscumbia can claim 7-9 lynchings. One lynching was in a park across the street from my grandparents when my father was ten years old. It was never mentioned. Dislike for the Ku Klux Klan was a regular topic, though.

You're that Jew!

Three years ago I was talking to some ladies at a political booth setup away from the noise of the local Enchilada Fiesta . I had introduced myself and we were having a nice discourse about the proselytizing by the City. A woman in the booth, but not in the conversation, interrupted and said, "You're that Jew who wants to take our crosses!" We all looked at her and I said, "That's right" and we went back to talking.

When you don't have an Anglo name it's obvious what you are to those who make it their business to know who the Jews are, and where they are. One of the strange things in life is remembering every event, every word, and every time someone has made a desultory remark or done something that you know was done because of your religion. By 1898 enough Jews had settled in the area to form a congregation strong enough to construct a modest, unassuming brick reform temple with a sanctuary, study, and two classrooms. The temple had indoor plumbing by the time I got there. As the size of the congregation fluctuated over the years so did the presence of a rabbi. When I was a kid we had student rabbis show up from Cincinnati on an irregular basis.

My mother's family, the Adkisons, came from over there, mainly the British Isles, in the late 1700's through one of the southern ports. They settled in southern Georgia and some eventually found farmland in south Alabama where I first met them. They were always poor farmers, with six kids that lived, and they had their peanuts, corn, cotton, watermelons, pigs, mules and horses for plowing, liquor, and church. There was a strong sense of what is right and what is wrong. They helped poor neighbors, black and white, and put up with no foolishness from anyone.

Sometime around the early 1930''s my father was at Auburn University, with his tuition paid for by an aunt in Detroit and met my mother, who was a nursing student in Montgomery, and they got married in 1935. By then my father was working in Natchez, Mississippi, on some Mississippi River project.

We constantly meet a lot of naysayers. We decided we would do the preliminary paperwork and if we got to a spot where we needed to hire a lawyer we would. The legal system allows the citizens to represent themselves, but the lawyers have written the rules. It’s not easy, but it can be done. Totally by accident when ordering a book, I found a third year law student east of the Hudson River willing to answer questions from time to time. A genuine Christian angel.

(We have had more bits of helpful advice from Christian legals that any other group. As they say in Iowa, “Go figure.”)

If you'd like to stand up for the First Amendment...

If you have an idea that something is wrong in any organization and you are not sure what to do, write letters with a few pointed questions. Calm letters written on the 6-8th grade reading level. Neat letters. Short letters – one or two pages. Attach pictures or anything to back up your letters. Keep copies! In file folders. You probably will not get responses from elected officials or employees. but, you now have evidence that you have brought the problem to their attention. Your letters are evidence that you tried to resolve the problem before being force to file a law suit. Remember the First Amendment also includes the right to petition the government.

2. Try to find someone calm with views like yours to join your efforts. You can rant and rave in private, but write calm letters. Review what each writes before mailing. You either work together or forget it.

3. Maintain your focus no matter what. Government workers have the time to ignore you or they will send you form letters that are distractions and time wasters.

4. Be extra polite, not fawning. Yes, Sir. No, Sir. Yes, Ma’am. No, Ma’am. Please. Thank you. (No "yeah’s’" or "huh’s?") Our best helpers are the court clerks at the counter. Do not be rude to them. People like to help. You must recognize their help by saying ‘Thank you.’ One of the lawyers we are dealing with complained to the judge that he didn’t like some of the comments I made to him in a letter. My attention span is real short with liars and crybabies. The judge told me to be polite.

5. Sources. Our state has a free Pro Se Procedures and Local Rules packet at the court clerk’s office. Maybe on line, too. Get a copy of state or federal, depending on where you are filing your case It is all baffling at first.

Buy a copy of the Federal Civil Judicial Procedure and Rules. If you go federal. There is one small book that is very handy: E-Z Rules for Civil Procedure. It is a quick outline-style reference, plainly written.

There is a lot of free on-line legal information. Wikipedia is a good start for some general definitions. Findlaw is great! LexisNexis. Westlaw. You can read cases and print them for reasonable fees. Some are free to download.

6. The job of the City Clerk is to protect and maintain public records for you. Write the City Clerk and request to see public documents about meetings, council votes, etc. Our city charges .50 cents per page to copy documents. This is to discourage people from making too many copies of the public records (if there are any). During the war my brother had asthma and the doctor said he needed to go to Arizona for the cure since the prescribed marijuana cigarettes didn't work. Apparently with no hesitation my mother packed the car and we took off for Phoenix, Arizona. Now this was before interstate highways, the whole country was on rations, and we had to go about 2,000 miles one way.

My father and I had never met officially until he got enough points of overseas service to rotate back to the United States. We never got along after we met. Never! All he knew was engineering, the Army, and there was only one opinion. But he had a strong sense of justice and fair play. Right from wrong and there was no blending of the line. My mother had converted and we grew up with a loose Jewish education, but there was no doubt that we all were proud Jews. I really don't know how the other Jewish families in the area did it, but if we wanted to know about Judaism that was our responsibility to read and learn about it. It was like that "A Boy named Sue" song, you were raised to be a proud Jew and now you go out there and show the world you are one.

I quit high school and joined the Navy to escape a dysfunctional family after my mother died and my father remarried. My Navy career lasted for nine years with the last year being service in Vietnam. I returned to Albuquerque, New Mexico, where my last state-side assignment had been and where my new Jewish bride of 18 months waited. Later that year I enrolled in the University of New Mexico and graduated three and half years later with a BA in Geography with several minors. Jobs were short in 1972 and having no sponsor I went for the Uncle Sam military carrot again. By then I was too old for the Navy, but the Lieutenant turnover in Vietnam presented job opportunities for those needing employment like me. I stayed in the Army for eleven years and retired in 1983 as an Infantry Captain.

My last military assignment was in South Carolina and after I retired I bought a bar with a kitchen. Four years of that and I was out of there! My claim to fame was that Hootie and the Blowfish played in my joint for their first public appearance.

Divorced, no job, son gone to the Navy, I enlisted at the local university to earn a teaching certification. I wasted a whole year getting certified. I couldn't find a school district that wanted a man who didn't coach something. Finally, one district in the country, a mill town, hired me to teach the seventh grade. They were not ready for me, too liberal, too fair. Three years later my fellow teacher bride-to-be and I announced our wedding plans. The next day I was told my contract would not be renewed. My new wife moved to another school in that district for an additional year and we then moved to Texas for four years where she also taught. I managed to teach high school one more year when a coach couldn't be found for the job.

The prejudice and conservatism in the Hill County of Texas was too much for us and our plan for leaving Texas was simple: One of us finds a teaching job in New Mexico and we are out of Texas. My wife found a job, we moved, found a nice lot, built our house ourselves, and my wife had a baby. As a stay-home dad I then had time to look around our new city. I was just going to mind my own business, but I kept thinking of my new baby and my responsibilities to her. I decided that I would do what I could do to make her life better than mine when I was her age and as she grew up. Too much religiosity was going on here and throughout the country to just be idle. I had taken an oath to protect and defend the Constitution against all enemies foreign and domestic; I have not been relieved of that oath.

I didn't like what the city government was doing with the three crosses on the front of City Hall and I saw it as being in the proselytizing business. I started writing letters and the runaround started about no documents, no votes, and no discussions Then the school district secretly bought a $16,000 artwork with three crosses for the new district stadium. At about that time the State Highway Department installed sets of crosses on new highway development. More letters, ignored letters.

I met Jesse Chavez who had been writing letters and we joined forces to file a federal pro se lawsuit against the School Board to remove crosses from vehicles, the stadium and make some minor changes in a policy on teaching religions like including teaching about minority religions. With no experience beyond what we had read, we went for what we thought would be the easiest for us, the School Board. That was over two years ago and the School Board refuses to budge. We ask for no money except expenses in both cases since profit has not been our motivator.

I have included the personal history and experiences in an attempt to explain how it all comes together to form a personality that has to stand up for what is right. When I was in Army Ranger training I hesitated on a field problem once and the instructor said, "Do something, Ranger!" Also I remember a World War II unit’s motto: "Those who dare, win." As members of a greater society, but more especially as Jews, we must stand up for what is right. If we don’t stand up for ourselves and demand justice, who would bother to stand up for us?

If any reader has dreams of doing the right thing, do it! Put up with the problem as long as you can, then attack the problem after some research. You only need $250 to file a federal civil pro se lawsuit. Be advised that the lawyers will hate you. The judges will hate you. The status quo will hate you. I don't mean ‘dislike you''; they will hate you for interrupting their well-ordered little world. Especially with an ingrained topic like ours.

It doesn't matter if they openly hate you after you file the lawsuit, they hated before that or else you would not have had to file the lawsuit. Some deny there is a religious war going on in America. I sincerely hope that people who want to be free wake up and realize what is happening. There are religious predators trying to take over this country for their own purposes. It's not all about religion. It's all about total control, with them in charge.

Rulings in Paul Weinbaum's lawsuits against the City of Las Cruces and the Las Cruces Public Schools

Please click here to read U.S. Judge Robert Brack's opinion and order in Paul Weinbaum's case against the city of Las Cruces (No. CIV 05-0996 RB/LAM, a PDF file).

Please click here to read U.S. Judge Robert Brack's opinion and order in Paul Weinbaum's case against the Las Cruces, New Mexico Public Schools (NO. CV 03-1043 RB/LAM, a PDF file).

TOPIC: Separation of Church and State > Public Displays of Religious Symbols