Quetzalcoatl and the First Amendment

A few years ago, I wrote an article on the Aztec deity Quetzalcoatl for the encyclopedia Hispanic American Religious Cultures. As I researched that article, I was intrigued to discover that a statue of Quetzalcoatl commissioned by the city of San Jose, CA had been the subject of a “religious establishment” case in the 1990s. In other words, someone sued the city on the grounds that the statue was an unconstitutional endorsement of religion.

"Quetzalcoatl statue" (photo by Tego1, Flickr)

The case boiled down to whether or not the statue was “religious.” Opponents of the statue linked it to religion in multiple ways:

  • Some Christians in the community (fundamentalist Protestants, I would surmise, given the particular logic of their complaint) objected to the statue because they equated it with the serpent from Genesis 3 (ergo, they saw it as a covertly satanic symbol).
  • Some Mexicans objected to the statue on the grounds that Quetzalcoatl had been worshipped with human sacrifice–prompting defenders of the statue to counter that actually, according to the myths, Quetzalcoaltl had abolished human sacrifice.
  • Plaintiffs claimed that at the city-sponsored ceremony dedicating the statue, individuals had bowed to the statue; left offerings of food, flowers, and incense; or left written prayers to Quetzalcoatl.
  • Plaintiffs submitted to the courts New Age and Mormon literature showing that those groups regarded Quetzalcoatl as a living religious symbol or divine figure (i.e., Mormons equate Quetzalcoatl with Jesus).

(The statue has also been criticized for looking, literally, like a pile of dog crap, ostensibly a malicious move by the artist in retaliation for the city rejecting his original design. But the courts didn’t have to rule on the statue’s artistic merits.)

The district and appeals courts both rejected the plaintiffs’ claims. Basically, the courts ruled that even if Quetzalcoalt has continuing religious significance for some people, such people don’t constitute a familiar, organized religion, and therefore the statue doesn’t constitute a meaningful endorsement of religion by the city. Read the appeals court decision.

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