WASHINGTON — If a city allows a monument with the Ten Commandments to be erected in a public park, must it also allow other religions and groups to display monuments of their choosing? The Supreme Court agreed Monday to take up that question in an unusual dispute over the reach of the 1st Amendment and freedom of speech.
In the past, the court has said the free-speech rule applies in parks and officials may not discriminate against speakers or groups because of their message. In this context, freedom of speech means a freedom from government restrictions.
But last year, the U.S. appeals court in Denver extended this free-speech rule to cover the monuments, statues and displays in a public park. It ruled in favor of a religious group called Summum, which says it wants to erect its "Seven Aphorisms of Summum" next to the Ten Commandments in Pioneer Park in Pleasant Grove, Utah.
Its ruling left the city with an all-or-nothing choice: Allow Summum and others to erect their own displays in the park, or remove the other monuments.
The city’s lawyers called the appeals court ruling "confused" and "flawed" and said it could cause problems around the nation.
"We're delighted that the Supreme Court agreed to take this critical case," said a statement by Jay Sekulow, chief counsel for the conservative American Center for Law and Justice, which filed an appeal for Pleasant Grove.
He continued: "The lower court ruling -- if left unchecked -- would ultimately force local governments to remove long-standing and well-established patriotic, religious and historical displays."
Sekulow argued that monuments are the property of the city and are not akin to private free speech.
But the Rev. Barry W. Lynn, executive director of the liberal Americans United for Separation of Church and State, said Pleasant Grove invited problems by allowing the Ten Commandments monument. "If government creates an open forum, it can't pick and choose among religions," Lynn said in a statement.
When the Supreme Court has taken up the Ten Commandments in the past, it has done so to decide whether a city or state display violates the 1st Amendment’s bar against "an establishment of religion."
In 2005, the court issued split decisions.
It upheld a 4-decade-old granite monument displaying the Ten Commandments that sat among other statues and monuments on the grounds of the Texas Capitol. However, in a separate ruling on the same day, it struck down a move by county officials in Kentucky to display the commandments in courthouses.
The court will hear Pleasant Grove City vs. Summum in the fall.