U.S. Supreme Court takes a new 10 Commandments case
The Decalogue is on display in a public park in Utah. Is the park, therefore, a forum for expression of all types?
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Last year, the court told a city in Utah that since it allows the display of a Ten Commandments monument in a public park it must also allow followers of the Summum religion to erect a similar monument displaying the "Seven Aphorisms of Summum."
The ruling prompted an outcry by state and local officials and veterans who warn that the appeals court decision will force cities to either remove all monuments from public property or accept all privately donated monuments – including displays that might be offensive to residents.
On Monday, the US Supreme Court agreed to hear the case next fall to decide what restrictions, if any, cities and towns may enforce against the placement of private monuments on public property.
The controversy began in 2005 when the mayor of Pleasant Grove City, Utah, was contacted by the president of the Salt Lake City-based Summum church, who requested permission to erect the "seven aphorisms" monument near the city's Ten Commandments monument in Pioneer Park.
The Summum church teaches that the seven aphorisms were on the first stone tablets brought by Moses from Mount Sinai. According to the Bible, Moses smashed the first tablets. The Ten Commandments were later delivered on a second set of tablets.
When the city refused permission, the group sued. The church alleged that the city's refusal to allow a Summum monument violated First Amendment free speech protections.
A federal judge ruled for the city, but a three-judge panel of the 10th US Circuit Court of Appeals found for the church.
The case turns on what kind of speech the monument dispute implies. Does the Ten Commandments display involve private speech in an open forum – like individuals expressing their opinions in a town meeting? Or is the permanent placement of a Ten Commandments monument on public land a form of government speech that is not open to everyone?
The Ten Commandments monument was donated in 1971 by the Fraternal Order of the Eagles. The appeals court ruled that the monument was a form of private speech by the Eagles being communicated in a public forum – Pioneer Park. Because a public forum exists there, the city could not prevent others from participating by erecting their own monuments, the appeals court reasoned.
When the full 10th Circuit heard the case, it split on the issue, and the decision against the city stood.
In a dissent, Judge Michael McConnell warned of dire consequences if the appeals court decision was not overturned. "Every park in the country that has accepted a VFW memorial is now a public forum for the erection of permanent fixed monuments; they must either remove the war memorials or brace themselves for an influx of clutter," he wrote.