Friday, November 14, 2008

Kitchy monuments and mummified pets: SCOTUS takes on Summum

An interesting case from Utah. Pleasant Grove City has a park it says is dedicated to its "pioneer heritage." To celebrate that heritage, it has a number of privately-donated monuments. There's a log cabin, a Mormon religious artifact, a monument to firefighters who died on Sept. 11 (an Eagle Scout's public service project -- not sure how that's related to pioneer heritage, but whatever), and a monument to the Ten Commandments.

A weird (no really, it's weird) religious group called Summum wanted to put its own monument up in the park, right next to the 10 Commandments monument. Summum believes that before Moses came down the mountain with the Commandments, he received Seven Aphorisms from God. Apparently the Israelites weren't ready, so he hid the Aphorisms away and went to get the Commandments. But the Aphorisms have been passed down through history, and now they've appeared in Utah.

Anyway, the city, predictably, said "thanks, but no thanks" to that monument. Summum sued, and eventually won at the Court of Appeals. The city petitioned the Court for certiorari, and got it.

Oral arguments were a couple of days ago. You can read about them here and here.

The case boils down to this: if the Eagles monument and the Summum monument are private speech, then the city is engaging in viewpoint discrimination. If the city has “adopted” the monuments in the park, then the monuments are government speech — and government can say nearly whatever it wants. The problem with that is that what it’s saying here is “we think the 10 commandments are better than the seven aphorisms.” That constitutes an official statement of preference for one religion over another. That’s an establishment clause violation. There wasn’t an establishment question before the Court, but there was an establishment issue in earlier proceedings (it just wasn’t appealed). Procedurally it’s complicated, but I think the case will (should) get remanded for additional factfinding on the question whether the government speech (if that’s what it is) is itself a violation of the establishment clause.

Law Blog - : Seven Aphorisms and the First Amendment: A Look at Oral Arguments

Read more in this WSJ summary and this NYT editorial.

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