From Tiny Sect, Weighty Issue for Justices

Thirty miles to the north, in Salt Lake City, adherents of a religion called Summum gather in a wood and metal pyramid hard by Interstate 15 to meditate on their Seven Aphorisms, fortified by an alcoholic sacramental nectar they produce and surrounded by mummified animals.

In 2003, the president of the Summum church wrote to the mayor here with a proposal: the church wanted to erect a monument inscribed with the Seven Aphorisms in the city park, “similar in size and nature” to the one devoted to the Ten Commandments.

Su Menu, the church’s president, agreed. “If you look at them side by side,” Ms. Menu said of the two monuments, “they really are saying similar things.”

The Third Commandment: “Thou shalt not take the name of the Lord thy God in vain.”

The Third Aphorism: “Nothing rests; everything moves; everything vibrates.”

Michael W. Daniels, the mayor here, is not the vibrating sort.

It will be interesting to see how this plays out. Clearly the city’s criteria were drawn up after the fact, but if the court can get over that, it seems to me the criteria are legitimate. However, that only puts off the issue for a few years. The Summum folks will send a couple down there to live and practice their religion, and after they’ve been there for say 3 years (a year longer than Eagles who donated the 10 Comandments monument) they’ll repeat their request.

A better plan for other towns is to cut off all future donations, or subject them to a rigorous committee process with long-winded byzantine rules that will choke off all but the politically connected from making donations. But they had still better be cautious about discriminating in favor of Judeo-Christian symbols, or someone will have his day in court.

One complicating factor is that 10th Circuit judges long ago ruled that Ten Commandments displays are private speech, not government speech. This ruling insulated municipalities from lawsuits under the establishment clause, but opened them up to challenges under the free speech clause.

From that article, city attorneys are claiming that which monuments are displayed is a form of government speech, and thus should not be restricted since the government, too, has free speech rights.

Lawyers for the city warn that if Summum wins its case at the high court, public parks nationwide may soon become cluttered junk yards of monuments – including some that may offend local residents.

“Accepting a Statue of Liberty does not compel a government to accept a Statue of Tyranny,” writes Jay Sekulow in his brief on behalf of Pleasant Grove.

The problem is that previous litigants, including in the 10th Circuit, have argued “It wasn’t our idea, we’re not promoting a particular religion” about religious monuments in their parks. If the city is in fact expressing its own protected speech with these religious symbols, it must be held to a stricter standard as to what speech that is, and it can’t promote one religion to the detriment of another.

Transcript of today’s argument.

The Seven Aphorisms of Summum

The Supreme Court just ruled 9-0 against Summum, in favor of the local government. Here’s the gist of the written decision, based on one article (I haven’t had a chance to review the decision yet).

While a government entity is quite limited in its ability to regulate or restrict private speech in traditional public forums, like parks, the government entity “is entitled to say what it wishes,” Justice Alito wrote, citing earlier Supreme Court rulings. If the people do not like what their government officials say or stand for, they can vote them out of office, he wrote.

Not that government, through its officials, can say whatever it wants whenever it wants, Justice Alito observed. For one thing, government expressions must not violate the First Amendment’s ban on endorsement of a particular religion. Moreover, what government officials say may be limited “by law, regulation, or practice.”

“And of course, a government entity is ultimately ‘accountable to the electorate and the political process for its advocacy,’ ” Justice Alito wrote, quoting from an earlier Supreme Court decision.

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