If The Government Recognizes One Religion, Must It Recognize All Religions ?

An interesting religious liberty case is pending before the Supreme Court that opens an entirely new front in the war over the public display of religious symbols:

PLEASANT GROVE CITY, Utah — Across the street from City Hall here sits a small park with about a dozen donated buildings and objects — a wishing well, a millstone from the city’s first flour mill and an imposing red granite monument inscribed with the Ten Commandments.

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.

The city declined, a lawsuit followed and a federal appeals court ruled that the First Amendment required the city to display the Summum monument. The Supreme Court on Wednesday will hear arguments in the case, which could produce the most important free speech decision of the term.

The justices will consider whether a public park open to some donations must accept others as well. In cases involving speeches and leaflets, the courts have generally said that public parks are public forums where the government cannot discriminate among speakers on the basis of what they propose to say. The question of how donated objects should be treated is, however, an open one.

The city has tried to justify the distinction between the two statutes by saying they are meant to represent history, not religion:

Only donations concerning the city’s history are eligible for display in the park as a matter of longstanding policy, he said, and only when donated by groups with a long association with the city. The Fraternal Order of Eagles, a national civic organization, donated the Ten Commandments monument in 1971.

The donations, Mr. Daniels went on, are transformed when the city accepts them. “Monuments on government property become government speech,” he said.

Under the First Amendment, the government can generally say what it likes without giving equal time to opposing views; it has much less latitude to choose among private speakers.

Asked what the government is saying when it displays the Ten Commandments, Mr. Daniels talked about law and history. He did not mention religion.

Pressed a little, he retreated.

“The fact that we own the monument doesn’t mean that what is on the monument is something we are espousing, promoting, establishing, embracing,” Mr. Daniels said. “We’re looking at, Does it fit with the heritage of the people of this area?”

Lawyers for the Summum’s, however, say that it is a clear example of government preferring one form of religious expression over another:

Brian M. Barnard, a lawyer for the Summum church, said the city’s distinctions were cooked up after the fact as a way to reject his client’s monument. The local chapter of the Eagles, Mr. Barnard added, had only been in town two years when it donated the Ten Commandments monument.

“We have a city that will allow one organization to put up its religious ideals and principles,” Mr. Barnard said. “When the next group comes along, they won’t allow it to put up its religious ideals and principles.”

And those differing views have continued before the Supreme Court:

The city, supported by more than 20 cities and states, along with the federal government, has told the Supreme Court that the upshot of affirming the appeals court decision would be to clutter public parks across the nation with offensive nonsense.

A town accepting a Sept. 11 memorial would also have to display a donated tribute to Al Qaeda, the briefs said. “Accepting a Statue of Liberty,” the city’s brief said, should not “compel a government to accept a Statue of Tyranny.”

The brief for the Summum church said the relevant dispute was much narrower. “The government,” it said, “may not take sides in a theological debate.”

That, it seems, is exactly what the city is going in this case and it seems to be exactly what the First Amendment prohibits.

  • http://www.kipesquire.net KipEsquire

    This is actually not a freedom of religion case at all (much to the chagrin of both theocrats and wall-of-separation types); it is being argued strictly on “viewpoint-discriminatory government-sponsored speech in a public forum” grounds.

    A good primer here:


  • http://www.thelibertypapers.org/ Stephen Littau

    I am so glad this case has made it to SCOTUS. How can the theocrats argue against another religious group putting a religious monument on government property without undermining their own arguments for putting the ten commandments on government property? It’s going to be interesting to say the least!

  • Akston

    Whether it’s about limiting speech or about establishing a religion, it seems like a classic Tragedy of the Commons. Government owned lands are always ripe for it.

    Sounds like another argument to keep “public” lands to a minimum to me.