Religious Monuments Case Coming Up

Jason Pitzl-Waters —  September 30, 2008 — Leave a comment

The Washington Times reminds us that the Supreme Court’s upcoming docket (they resume hearing cases in October) will feature a case that could have far-reaching implications for minority religions.

“Religious doctrine is on the docket with Pleasant Grove City v. Summum, in which the Supreme Court is asked whether the city of Pleasant Grove, Utah, can display the Ten Commandments on a monument in a city park as a matter of free speech. The small Summum sect argues that if the city displays the Ten Commandments, it also should display their belief’s Seven Aphorisms. City officials refused, which sent the dispute to the Supreme Court. “The betting money is that Pleasant Grove will come out ahead in this,” said Tom Goldstein, a partner in the law firm of Akin, Gump, Strauss, Hauer & Feld.”

I discussed Pleasant Grove City v. Summum in some depth back in April. The court’s ruling could ultimately decide if local government can control which (religious) monuments are erected, or if public parks should be treated more as an “open forum”.

“The outcome of this case is going to be a big deal for religious minorities. Remember the battles over Pagan inclusion in government-sponsored religious displays in Green Bay and Ohio? A SCOTUS decision here could all but force local government bodies to enact a fully-open policy concerning religious displays on government-controlled property. In other words, the local city council or mayor couldn’t pick and choose which religious displays are worthy to be placed with a Nativity Scene or Ten Commandments monument. It would be all or nothing.”

Pleasant Grove has an interesting defense of claiming that ruling against them would hamper government’s right to free speech.

“Pleasant Grove argues that its selection of privately donated monuments for display in Pioneer Park fits within this long tradition of government speech. As the speaker, the city argues, it is under no obligation to modify its message to accommodate Summum’s speech; instead, Pleasant Grove ‘is entitled to say what it wishes’ through its monuments and can ‘take legitimate and appropriate steps to ensure that its message is neither garbled nor distorted.’”

In other words, if you force them to remove the Christian monument, or force them to include other religious monuments, it would damage their rights to “free speech”. This argument is echoed in a massive number of Amicus briefs from state governments, veteran’s organizations, and conservative Christian advocacy groups. Meanwhile, Americans United, assorted Humanist groups, and several liberal religious groups have filed Amicus briefs arguing that this case shouldn’t be heard on free-speech grounds, and is instead all about the Establishment Clause.

“The Rev. Barry W. Lynn, Americans United executive director, said the case raises an important conflict over the value of religious neutrality. “It’s not the government’s job to display the symbols of any faith,” Lynn said. “When government officials allow religious groups to place permanent monuments on public land, the government is accountable for the message. “Our government,” he continued, “should not — and, under our Constitution, may not — pick-and-choose among religions. This principle stands at the very heart of church-state separation.” The AU brief asserts that government cannot play favorites among religions and deny a minority religious request because of discomfort with the less-known religious views.”

In other words, concerning religion in the public square, government should just stay out of it altogether. Interestingly absent among the many briefs are Hindu, Buddhist, and Native American groups (groups that have banded together in the past to file Amicus briefs).One wonders what assorted religious minority communities think of this case. Would they welcome a win for Summum here? Or would they prefer the stance taken by Americans United?

A win for Summum seems increasingly unlikely, but would a win for Pleasant Grove City mean a win for Christian religious expression to the exclusion of other faiths? I guess we’ll have to wait and find out. Opening arguments are scheduled for November 12th.

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Jason Pitzl-Waters

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