The Freedom From Religion Foundation is expressing its dismay over a New Mexico city’s recent adoption of a blatantly Christian official flag.
The city of Belen recently approved a flag that features the “Star of Bethlehem.” The Star of Bethlehem derives from the nativity story of the Gospel of Matthew in the New Testament, and is often depicted as a four-, eight- or 14-pointed star. The city has chosen a “Star of Bethlehem” with four points that strongly resembles a Latin cross. It is called “a natal star” and relates to the birth of Jesus. The flag will be flown at city hall, the Belen business center, the police department, and in many other city buildings and areas.
It’s clear that citizens of Belen view this new flag design as a promotion of religion.
“I love that because it just establishes our faith and a representation of hope,” said one person who saw the new flag design. “This is again a representation, I think, by this city to just make a statement that they choose to let God be the God of their city.” Another noted: “I think it’s something we could be lacking a little bit in this country — that we need to be bold for our faith and what we believe in and what we represent and what we stand for.”
The inclusion of the “Star of Bethlehem” on this official city flag violates the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment, FFRF warns, because it signals an endorsement of Christianity.
“Federal courts have ruled that religious symbols on official city logos or representations violate the Establishment Clause,” FFRF Legal Fellow Chris Line writes to the city’s legal counsel. “The city of Belen flag design is akin to numerous other unconstitutional municipal representations.”
And any claims of historical or cultural significance to the “Star of Bethlehem” on the city flag because of the connection to “Bethlehem” (Belen is a Spanish translation of Bethlehem) do not relieve the city of its constitutional obligations, FFRF underscores.
Regardless of the unconstitutionality of the flag, as a matter of policy, the city should remove exclusionary religious images from its flag, FFRF reiterates. Updating the flag would show the citizens of Belen that their city and its leadership do not favor any one religion or belief system. Today, nearly 30 percent of adults in the U.S. are non-Christian, including 24 percent who do not practice any religion. By remaining neutral on matters of religion, the city would embrace the diversity of its citizens, including non-Christian religious citizens and citizens who are nonreligious.
“The city of Belen is not only thumbing its nose at the Constitution,” says FFRF Co-President Annie Laurie Gaylor, “it is also expressing disdain at the way this country’s demographics are rapidly changing for the better.”
The U.S. Constitution that Belen officials took an oath to uphold is a godless document whose only references to religion are exclusionary, Gaylor emphasizes.
FFRF is urging Belen to immediately discontinue using the recently adopted flag as its official banner and to instead adopt a new representation of the city that is inclusive of all of its citizens.
The Freedom From Religion Foundation is a national nonprofit organization with 33,000 members and 20 chapters across the country, including hundreds of members and a chapter in New Mexico. Its purposes are to protect the constitutional principle of separation between state and church, and to educate the public on matters relating to nontheism.