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Supreme Court rules Utah city can reject religious sect's monument

Lawyers for the Summum religion had argued that its monument should be allowed in a public park where the Ten Commandments were already displayed.

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / February 26, 2009



Washington

The US Supreme Court has ruled that a Utah city did not violate the free speech rights of a religious sect when it refused to place the group's monument beside an existing Ten Commandments monument in a public park.

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Lawyers for the Summum religion insisted in a lawsuit that the placement of the Ten Commandments monument in a Pleasant Grove City park created a public forum that required the city to accept other kinds of monuments and messages.

When Pleasant Grove refused to accept Summum's monument, the group sued the city for engaging in unconstitutional censorship. A federal appeals court agreed. The city was ordered to erect the Summum monument.

In a unanimous decision announced Wednesday, the Supreme Court reversed that decision. The high court said that when a government entity decides to place a privately donated monument on public land, the display represents the government's own speech and does not require government acceptance of any and all other monuments conveying competing messages private groups may want displayed.

"Government decisionmakers select the monuments that portray what they view as appropriate for the place in question, taking into account such content-based factors as esthetics, history, and local culture," Justice Samuel Alito wrote for the court in an 18-page decision. "The monuments that are accepted, therefore, are meant to convey … a government message, and they thus constitute government speech."

The decision in Pleasant Grove City v. Summum is important because it marks the latest expression of an emerging doctrine in Supreme Court jurisprudence setting the limits and powers of government speech.

"The decision gives government the right to speak for itself and the ability to communicate on behalf of its citizens," said Jay Sekulow, chief counsel at the American Center for Law and Justice, who argued the case for Pleasant Grove.

"It's a landmark decision that clears the way for government to express its views and its history through the selection of monuments – including religious monuments and displays," Mr. Sekulow said in a statement.

The decision is raising concern among some analysts that it might encourage government officials to approve religious displays on public land.

"Government has no business erecting, maintaining, or promoting religious symbols or codes," said the Rev. Barry Lynn, executive director of Americans United for the Separation of Church and State. "The answer in this case is to remove the Ten Commandments from the public park, not compound the problem by adding more sectarian material," he said in statement.

Although the Pleasant Grove case was litigated under the First Amendment's free speech clause, both sides waged the battle with an eye toward the First Amendment's establishment clause.

At first, Pleasant Grove was reluctant to claim responsibility for the religious message associated with the Ten Commandments monument in its park. City officials were concerned that if they made their case too vigorously, the courts would find that the monument amounted to an unconstitutional establishment of religion and order it removed.

Lawyers for the Summum religious group said the Ten Commandments and other monuments in the park created a public forum and that the First Amendment prohibited the government from picking and choosing which messages to display.

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