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Court to weigh Utah sect's monument

Justices must decide if the Summum group can put up a religious display in a city park.

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / November 12, 2008


The US Supreme Court is considering whether a Utah city violated the free speech rights of a religious group when the city council refused to place the group's monument beside an existing Ten Commandments monument in a public park.

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The case, set for oral argument Wednesday, explores whether the free speech protections of the First Amendment extend to the placement in public parks of private monuments.

Lawyers for the Summum religious group say the exclusion of its monument in Pleasant Grove City was impermissible government censorship – the city was blocking the organization's display in a public forum because it disagreed with the content of the message, they say.

Lawyers for Pleasant Grove counter that monuments in a city park are not part of a First Amendment public forum equivalent to spoken words in a debate or leaflets being handed out. They argue that when a city decides to place a privately donated monument in a park, the display represents the city's own speech and the city is not required to accept any monument a private group may want to donate.

The case, Pleasant Grove City v. Summum, has generated concern among municipal officials, veterans' groups, and others around the country that they may be forced by the courts to accept a barrage of unwanted monuments on public land.

The city of Casper in Wyoming is fighting an anti-gay monument proposed by activist Fred Phelps. Lawyers for Mr. Phelps say the city must accept his monument because it displays the Ten Commandments.

"The range of possible choices is painfully clear," says Casper City Attorney William Luben in a friend of the court brief. "Be prepared to make every man the master of public property or make every man an iconoclast under pain of litigation."

Case being closely tracked

The Pleasant Grove case is being closely watched by constitutional scholars because it falls in the murky intersection of two key clauses in the First Amendment. The free speech clause requires that the government not discriminate in any public forum against private speakers based on the content of their message. But the same clause also permits the government to speak on its own without interference from private speakers.

In addition, the First Amendment's establishment clause forbids the government from discriminating against or promoting any particular religious faith.

In recent years, a number of lawsuits have challenged the display of the Ten Commandments on government property as violations of the establishment clause. The US Supreme Court has upheld some displays and struck down others.

But the Pleasant Grove case is different. Instead of asking for the removal of the Ten Commandments display, Summum sought to add its own religious display beside it.