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Supreme Court Rejects Religious Group Summum's Case to Force Utah City to Put Up Monument

The Supreme Court today ruled that a small religious group, Summum, can't make a Utah city put up a monument containing "the Seven Aphorisms of SUMMUM," a granite marker that the group donated to a public park. For anyone already asking "Huh?!?" Summum indicates the "Aphorisms" were written on stone tablets received by Moses with the Ten Commandments which "held very profound and deep meanings." However, Moses destroyed those tablets because people "were in no way ready for them". Actually, Summum suggests that "[t]oday, just as then, many people are not ready to understand the aphorisms carved on those first tablets", but it seems that didn't stop it from suing the city of Pleasant Grove to put up the monument.

As happens in many public parks, Pleasant Grove's park was home to other monuments, which the court described:

"The Park currently contains 15 permanent displays, at least 11 of which were donated by private groups or individuals. These include an historic granary, a wishing well, the City's first fire station, a September 11 monument, and a Ten Commandments monument donated by the Fraternal Order of Eagles in 1971."

Summum took aim in particular at the Ten Commandments monument in the park, as it had apparently had some previous success in challenging Ten Commandments displays in other Utah cities (those cities chose to take down their Ten Commandments displays, as opposed to raising Summum's).

Typically, courts have looked at a public park or a similar area as a "public forum" where freedom of speech is especially protected. Based on this very argument, Summum had actually won its case in the Court of Appeals below. However, today the Court indicated that there's a difference between showing up at a park and speaking your mind (or carrying around a banner), on one hand, and forcing a city to plant a monument, on the other. It its own words:

"Speakers, no matter how long-winded, eventually come to the end of their remarks; persons distributing leaflets and carrying signs at some point tire and go home; monuments, however, endure."

Another, more practical concern of making governments consider all donated monuments equally without regard to their expressed views, is that governments may have to either "'brace themselves for an influx of clutter' or face the pressure to remove longstanding and cherished monuments." As a result, "the placement of a permanent monument in a public park is best viewed as a form of government speech and is therefore not subject to scrutiny under the Free Speech Clause."

So does this mean that local governments can go ahead and start throwing up anything they want in public parks? Not entirely, because the government does face a number of other constitutional and legal restrictions. When looking at cases like Summum's which have some religious context, a party is still free to argue that the government violated the Establishment Clause if it appears to be promoting certain religions or religious messages to the exclusion of others. As noted by the Supreme Court, the electorate and the political process also play a role in holding governments accountable for their decisions in these matters, as well as in changing them in the future.

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