LAS CRUCES, N.M. – Native influence on this city in southern New Mexico was part of a federal appellate court ruling that rejected claims of solely religious content in the depiction of three crosses on the city logo. The court said that historical events, not religion, gave the city its name and the logo its theme.
“The city’s name derives from the ‘forest of crosses’ that once memorialized those massacred in the area” and “reflects a series of secular events that occurred near the city” rather than a religious affirmation, states a ruling Sept. 12 in the 10th U.S. Circuit Court in Denver, which rejected an appeal from federal district court in New Mexico.
Paul Weinbaum and Martin J. Boyd had alleged violation of a constitutional ban on establishing religion in the public sphere. Weinbaum, whose child attended public school in Las Cruces, said that they were constantly forced to view the Las Cruces symbol and, because they are not Christian, “the symbol offends, intimidates and alienates [us].”
As the city’s official symbol, the three-cross logo appears on signs, flags, buildings, city vehicles, and city uniforms, as well as on a sports complex sculpture and school mural. The chamber of commerce adopted a symbol with three crosses denoting “the three cultures basic to the area – Indian, Latin and Anglo,” according to the court.
The court interpreted the symbol in the context of area history, beginning when “local Native Americans’ hostility” to intruders led to attacks on those who traveled El Camino Real de Tierra Adentro (the Royal Road of Interior Lands), which crossed the area.
There is Native influence in the Las Cruces area, but “it’s also Spanish-related” with what may be “sort of a negative Native history,” Jared Abrams, a Las Cruces assistant city attorney, said by telephone.
“Spaniards on the Camino Real would be waylaid by Apache raiding parties” and their crude graves would be marked with wooden crosses that were, in effect, tombstones, he said.
In 1712, “Apache marauders” killed members of a caravan and Spanish soldiers subsequently marked their graves with crosses. A few decades later, “a bishop, a priest, a Mexican army colonel, a captain, four trappers and four choir boys” were killed in the same area, the court records state, as were 40 travelers from Taos and, later still, 14 soldiers in a convoy.
Crosses were erected on the graves, a practice used up to the present day to mark the sites of tragic deaths, the court record states.
Under the First Amendment to the Constitution, a religious symbol may be acceptable in civic use if it has a secular purpose, Abrams said.