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Religious group's monument does not fall under free speech

Utah city is not required to allow 'Seven Aphorisms' in park beside Ten Commandments, court rules.

February 26, 2009|David G. Savage

WASHINGTON — The 1st Amendment's right to free speech does not require a Utah city to display a religious group's "Seven Aphorisms" next to a monument featuring the Ten Commandments in a public park, the Supreme Court ruled unanimously Wednesday.

Monuments and statues in public parks speak for the government, even if they were donated originally by private groups, the court said. They are not equivalent to a speaker standing in a public park voicing his views.

The unusual case arose when a small, homegrown religion called Summum asked to have its Seven Aphorisms given equal space in Pioneer Park in Pleasant Grove City, Utah. Summum was founded in 1975, and it said its aphorisms were previously undiscovered messages from Mount Sinai.

The Fraternal Order of Eagles had donated the Ten Commandments monument to Pleasant Grove in 1971. City officials accepted it, and it stood among several historic displays in Pioneer Park.

Four years ago, the city was sued by Summum for refusing to allow the group to erect a stone monument in the same park featuring its religious message. To the city's surprise, Summum won in the U.S. 10th Circuit Court of Appeals in Denver. Its judges said that once the park had been opened to one private's group message, others had a free-speech right to have their message displayed as well.

That ruling set off alarms -- and not just in Utah. In Washington, government lawyers saw a potential problem on the National Mall. There are statues of Union Gen. Ulysses S. Grant and a popular wall memorial to Vietnam veterans, and plans are underway for a memorial to the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. Government lawyers feared that if the free-speech ruling involving monuments were upheld, it would open the door to all manner of groups to claim they had a right to include their statues and monuments in city, state or national parks.

But the Supreme Court said in Pleasant Grove vs. Summum there is no free-speech right to erect a monument in a park. Its decision ignored the religious component of the monuments, since the case focused only on free speech.

"Although a park is a traditional public forum for speeches and other transitory expressive acts, the display of a permanent monument is not a forum of expression" protected by the free-speech clause of the 1st Amendment, said Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr. "Instead, the placement of a permanent monument in a public park is best viewed as a form of government speech," he said. And no one has a legal right to demand the government give equal time to his message, he said.

The city "can safely exhale," added Justice Antonin Scalia.

Several of the court's liberal justices noted the Utah decision was limited and did not give a stamp of approval to cities to promote a religious message.


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