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Say no to Summum

November 15, 2008

In a case that reads like a law-school examination question, the U.S. Supreme Court was asked Wednesday to rule that a local government that displays the Ten Commandments on public property must also make room for the teachings of other religions. The question is complicated -- thanks in part to the court's past decisions -- but the answer is simple: No.

Like many communities, Pleasant Grove City, Utah, displays in a public park a monument inscribed with the Ten Commandments. In 2003, representatives of Summum, a church founded by a former Mormon, asked to display in the same park its Seven Aphorisms -- New Age-ish pronouncements such as "Nothing rests; everything moves; everything vibrates."

At Wednesday's oral argument, the justices sent out several legal vibrations. Some members were skeptical of Summum's claim that Pleasant Grove City's park was a public forum that must make room for all manner of opinions -- or else none at all. (Justice Antonin Scalia asked Summum's lawyer if that theory would cover a monument to chocolate chip cookies.) Others seemed troubled by the opposing argument that the city's decision to display the Ten Commandments was "government speech" outside the reach of the 1st Amendment.

Opposing the "public forum" argument, the city's lawyer argued that it would require public officials who erected a memorial to victims of the 9/11 attacks also to approve an Al Qaeda monument "praising the value of terrorists." The difference, of course, is that a monument commemorating victims of terrorism is not the endorsement of a religious view. And although Summum brought its suit under the free-speech provisions of the 1st Amendment, the elephant in the courtroom was another part of that amendment: its ban on governmental establishment of religion.

It would simplify matters if the court ruled that all displays of religious texts on government property violate that ban. But that's not an option because the court itself foreclosed it. Only three years ago, the justices upheld a Ten Commandments display on the grounds of the state capitol of Texas, finding that it made a statement about the commandments' influence in history or conveyed a secular moral message.

It's unsettling to contemplate the proliferation of religious monuments on public property that is the logical consequence of Summum's argument. Under its theory, secular groups also could demand free advertising on public property. It's the religious monuments, however, that run the risk of offending those who don't profess a particular faith. Our message to the court is: Thou shalt not turn public parks into churches.

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