Court to weigh Utah sect's monument
Justices must decide if the Summum group can put up a religious display in a city park.
(Page 2 of 2)
When Pleasant Grove refused, Summum filed a lawsuit charging the city with violating its free speech rights. The group's lawyers said the Ten Commandments and other monuments created a public forum in the park and the First Amendment prohibited the government from picking which messages to display.Skip to next paragraph
Subscribe Today to the Monitor
A panel of the 10th US Circuit Court of Appeals agreed with Summum and ordered the city to display the monument. Pleasant Grove is now appealing that decision in the Supreme Court.
Issue of religion in public forums
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. He says, "Summum has no First Amendment right to impose its monument upon the city park."
Summum's lawyers say Pleasant Grove brought the issue upon itself. The city created a public forum by accepting 15 displays for its park, including the Ten Commandments.
"The most basic of First Amendment rules is that in a traditional public forum like a public park, a city may not discriminate among speakers based on the content of their speech," writes lawyer Pamela Harris in her brief for Summum.
The rejection of the Summum monument is a "targeted anti-Summum gerrymander, aimed at suppressing one particularly disfavored religious view," she says.
Pleasant Grove is a city of about 31,000 residents, most of whom are Mormons.
The Summum group is based in Salt Lake City. Founded in 1975 as an offshoot of Gnostic Christianity, its teachings center on seven principles of creation which adherents believe were inscribed on the first set of tablets delivered by Moses from Mt. Sinai.
The Ten Commandments story says that Moses destroyed the first tablets before returning to receive a second set containing the Commandments.
In 2003, Summum leaders asked Pleasant Grove to allow the display of the seven aphorisms.
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.
In a friend of the court brief, Ayesha Khan, legal director for Americans United for Separation of Church and State, says the Pleasant Grove case should be litigated under establishment clause principles rather than free speech principles. Summum's real claim is that the city acted with religious animus in refusing to display its monument, she says.
"I think the record does suggest religious animus," she says, "but there is no smoking gun on that score."
Ms. Khan is urging the court to reverse the 10th Circuit free speech decision and make clear that the issues must be examined under the establishment clause.