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Court: Serpent Sculpture Doesn’t Promote Religion

August 24, 1996

SAN FRANCISCO (AP) _ The city of San Jose did not promote or endorse religion by installing a 10-ton sculpture of an Aztec serpent god in a park, a federal appeals court ruled Friday.

A Christian group that sued the city claimed the plumed serpent representing the god Quetzalcoatl violated federal and state constitutions.

The 9th Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco disagreed.

``While there was no question that Quetzalcoatl was at one time a religious figure, the parties agreed that ... a symbol must have current religious adherents to be considered religious,″ Judge Thomas Nelson wrote in the court’s 3-0 decision.

The United States Justice Foundation argued that the serpent is a religious symbol in certain teachings of the current Mormon faith, New Age beliefs and a growing spiritual movement among Zapatista revolutionaries in southern Mexico.

But the appeals court upheld a U.S. District Court’s ruling, saying the group failed to make the connection between the serpent, New Age beliefs, and the present Mormon religion.

San Jose’s art committee proposed the idea of commissioning artist Robert Graham to create the sculpture to commemorate Mexican and Spanish contributions to the city’s culture.

The group sued in November 1994, just before the 8-foot sculpture was dedicated at Plaza de Cesar Chavez.

``Nobody who has seen it would say it’s a religious symbol,″ San Jose City Attorney Joan Gallo said. ``It’s an artist’s rendering of a snake.″

Thomas Diepenbrock, the foundation’s attorney, said no more appeals are planned.

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