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In a historic part of Santa Fe, New Mexico, there’s a debate brewing over what to do about a mural on a particular wall and which banners retailers can hang on the light poles. The bigger kerfuffle may be over the mural, but I was troubled by how the local Historic Districts Review Board is weighing options for the banners.

Merchants have proposed a “stylized image of the Virgin of Guadalupe” since that’s the namesake of a major street in the area. That alone is likely not an Establishment Clause issue since the goal is not to promote religion. But the Review Board shot down the idea, at least for now, because a local church hadn’t given the merchants a green light.

Board members also questioned if the retailers had consulted with anyone at Our Lady of Guadalupe Church, which oversees the adjoining historic Santuario de Guadalupe shrine, about using an image of the Virgin of Guadalupe. The merchants had not.

“We need to be mindful of the church’s opinion,” [board member Jennifer] Biedscheid said.

Said [board member Frank] Katz: “You should have contacted the church beforehand.”

No we don’t, and no we shouldn’t have.

The ultimate recommendation to the Santa Fe City Council included asking the retailers to get approval from that church before moving forward with the proposal.

Why are city officials requiring a thumbs up from church officials before going ahead with a decision that has nothing to do with them? Why would church leaders be allowed to nix the idea?

That’s what resident Willie Brown wants to know. In an opinion piece for the Santa Fe New Mexican, he wonders why the church is getting any say in the decision.

Why would this church’s opinion be important? Do they own a patent on the image? Doubtful, given that the image goes back hundreds of years and appears on everything from coffee cups and T-shirts to velvet posters and motorcycle jackets.

The city of Las Cruces uses the symbol of three crosses as its official logo. Should it have gotten permission from the Pope? Obviously not. What about the very name of the street, “Guadalupe?” Is there evidence the city of Santa Fe obtained permission from the same nearby church or other religious officials before using that name? Is there actually a provision in the board’s ordinances requiring religious entities to be consulted in selecting the design of a street banner? Doubtful.

… In my humble opinion, the requirement to obtain the church’s opinion as a condition of approval to install a banner on a city street implicates the separation of church and state language found in the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. It seems to me that it is not nor should it be Guadalupe church’s authority to decide what artwork gets to hang on a city street. Instead, it is the city of Santa Fe’s responsibility to make that determination.

Brown is spot on with his assessment. It’s always nice to have buy-in from all residents on a public issue, but there’s absolutely no need to get the church’s approval on these banners, because that implies the city would say no if the church didn’t like the idea. That would be the wrong reason to reject it. If there are secular arguments against the plan, let’s hear them. But they don’t need the church’s input to have that discussion.

(Image via Shutterstock. Thanks to Brian for the link)

Hemant Mehta is the founder of, a YouTube creator, podcast co-host, and author of multiple books about atheism. He can be reached at @HemantMehta.

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