Archives For Pleasant Grove City v. Summum

James Arthur Ray is Free (for now): Just a few quick news notes for you this Sunday, starting with the news that New Age motivational speaker James Arthur Ray, charged with manslaughter in the deaths of three people at a sweat lodge ceremony he led, has been released on bail.

“James Arthur Ray walked out of a Camp Verde jail at 11:10 a.m. [2/26], according to Yavapai County Jail Sgt. Dee Huntley. Ray gained his freedom after Yavapai County Superior Court Judge Warren Darrow lowered Ray’s bond Thursday from $5 million to $525,000. Ray has pleaded not guilty to three counts of manslaughter stemming from a sweat lodge ceremony he led near Sedona in October.”

Ray’s bond was lowered after his lawyers argued that he’s broke, and couldn’t afford to pay $5 million dollars. While he’s free until his trial, Ray had to surrender his passport, and is barred from performing any ceremonies that could potentially harm someone. For a pretty thorough round-up of recent Ray-related news, check out

Summum Heads Back to Court: Almost exactly a year ago, the Supreme Court ruled against the New Age/UFO religion Summum, who wanted the right to place a monument of their Seven Principles in the same park as a Ten Commandments display in Pleasant Grove, UT. But while Summum lost (on a free speech challenge), Supreme Court justices and analysts both opined that the case could very well be re-heard on Establishment Clause grounds, and that’s exactly what Summum is now doing.

“Geoffrey Surtees, a lawyer for Pleasant Grove, argued that the Ten Commandments display in the city’s Pioneer Park conveys a secular historical message, which the U.S. Supreme Court has said is permissible. But Summun’s attorney, Brian Barnard, contended that the monument advances religion and that Pleasant Grove must give other religious messages equal consideration. “They are a mandate from God, the Judeo-Christian God,” Barnard said of the Ten Commandments.”

A SCOTUS win for Summum here could spark considerable changes concerning religiously-oriented monuments on public lands. If Pleasant Grove wants to avoid another loss, they should take the advice of Justice David Souter and either erect more monuments to give the current one a more secular context, or remove all monuments and make the case moot. If they don’t? Well, get ready to commission all those Pagan monuments you’d like to see.

Conversions for Food? While the recent evangelical Christian attack on Vodou practitioners in Haiti was shocking enough, in its wake Pastor Frank Amedia of Touch Heaven Ministries implied that food aid was ultimately  tied to an expected conversion.

“We would give food to the needy in the short term but if they refused to give up Voodoo, I’m not sure we would continue to support them in the long term because we wouldn’t want to perpetuate that practice. We equate it with witchcraft, which is contrary to the Gospel.”

Contrary to the stance of some extremists, this sort of food-for-converts method is usually frowned on in mainstream evangelical culture. The controversy has prompted evangelical news outlet Christianity Today to do a follow-up, and see if Amedia was quoted out of context. The answer is “sorta-kinda”.

She then expanded her question to ask “Would I continue to help them knowing they were still practicing Voodoo?” I responded that I would show them our love by helping them and that I would hope to become their friend, and then as their friend, that our compassion and love might be the difference to lead them to Christ. She then asked “How long would we continue to supply them?” To that I answered that “I am not sure we could continue to support them in the long term because we would not want to perpetuate that process. We equate [voodoo] with witchcraft, which is contrary to the Gospel.”

So there’s still a cut-off point for charity if you aren’t sporting a Bible, just not an immediate cut-off. The implication that Christian charity is finite for non-Christians has sparked criticism from CT readers, but we’ll have to wait and see if a more organized rebuke of the expectation that your food will buy converts emerges from the evangelical Christian community.

That’s all I have for now, have a great day!

Yesterday the Supreme Court handed down a decision regarding the case of Pleasant Grove City, UT v. Summum, The competing issues at hand were if a government body has the right to unrestricted free speech (including religious speech), and the idea that public land equals a public forum (with the government as caretakers, not gatekeepers). An argument that emerged when the New Age/UFO religion Summum wanted a monument to their Seven Principles placed in the same park as a Ten Commandments display. The unanimous opinion of the court was that in this particular instance the local government’s free speech claims trumped Summum’s free speech claims.

“The case centered on Pleasant Grove City, Utah, which displays a Ten Commandments monument in a public park. A religious group called Summum sought the right to erect its “Seven Aphorisms” in the park as well. When city officials declined, Summum sued, arguing that its free-speech rights had been violated. The Supreme Court analyzed the case under free-speech law, ruling 9-0 that it would be impractical to force communities to permanently erect every monument they are given.”

So is this loss a setback for religious minorities seeking equal standing with the dominant monotheisms? Not particularly. The decision here was a narrow one, and Supreme Court justices and analysts have both opined that the case could very well be re-heard on Establishment Clause grounds.

Justice John Paul Stevens provided this assessment of the Supreme Court’s new review of the constitutionality of placing religious monuments on government property: “…the effect of today’s decision will be limited.” In fact, in the 15 weeks between the Court’s hearing on Nov. 12 in Pleasant Grove City v. Summum (07-665) and the final decision Wednesday, one thing remained absolutely unchanged: the real dispute here was not about free speech, but about church-state relations. But that was not even argued. At the oral argument, Chief Justice John G. Roberts, Jr., told a lawyer for the small Utah city defending  its policy on a Ten Commandments monument in a city park: “You’re just picking your poison, aren’t you?  I mean, the more you say that the monument is government speech, to get out of the Free Speech Clause, the more it seems to me you’re walking into a trip under the Establishment Clause.”

To quote court-watcher Dahlia Lithwick, if Pleasant Grove City “wins this case as a result of the court’s free speech jurisprudence, [they] will be back in five years to lose it under the court’s religion doctrine.”. This was echoed by Americans United executive director Rev. Barry Lynn who stated that “the case should have been analyzed under church-state doctrine” instead of on free-speech grounds. So expect to hear about this case again very soon, Summum’s lawyers are already gearing up to challenge the ruling on Establishment grounds, and the justices seem to be warning Pleasant Grove to act fast or lose the next round.

Although the Supreme Court case centered on the Free Speech clause of the First Amendment, the Establishment Clause loomed in the background. Alito noted that his decision does not imply that there are not restrictions on government speech. “For example, government speech must comport with the Establishment Clause,” he said. Justice David Souter said the connections between the Establishment Clause and government speech have not yet been figured out. He said it would be “in the interest of a careful government” to have more than one monument to avoid an appearance of establishing religion.

Pleasant Grove should heed Justice Souter, for while arch-conservative Justice Antonin Scalia says that this monument’s circumstances are “virtually identical” to one allowed to stand in Texas, that Ten Commandments existed in a continumm of over 40 other monuments, dulling Establishment claims. Ultimately, neither side here can claim a lasting victory. Summum may not be able to erect their monument (which could have radically changed the management of public lands), but in the long run Pleasant Grove will have to have to either add more monuments to avoid Establishment Clause challenges, or take down all religiously-oriented monuments (the path favored by Americans United). This decision brings the case back into the more familiar (if sometimes complex) area of past religious monument cases. That might not result in a big dramatic shift in legal opinion as it would have if Summum had won here, but it will most likely follow the course of rulings that have been slowly secularizing our public spaces for a post-Christian and multi-religious American future.

My semi-regular round-up of articles, essays, and opinions of note for discerning Pagans and Heathens.

Author and ceremonial magician Donald Michael Kraig sings the praises of Silver Raven Wolf for the Llewellyn Journal.

“I was very impressed with what she was doing. Silver and I wrote to each other several times. It was clear to me that she knew more than most people about Paganism, writing, publishing, and marketing. It was inevitable that I would ask her the following question: “So when are you going to write a book?” She was too busy and had never written anything in such a long format, she replied, but I have to admit that I recognized a writer and knew that just as my question and encouragement was inevitable, there would be an inevitable result.”

Kraig, while heartily endorsing RavenWolf’s new book, also discusses how he met her through the (seemingly) now-defunct Wiccan/Pagan Press Alliance. Perhaps, in the age of blogs, e-zines, and podcasts, a new and revitalized press alliance is needed?

Side-Line Magazine interviews Olaf Parusel, the mastermind behind the classic darkwave band sToa, about his band’s new album “Silmand”, stoic philosophy, and working with famed “faerie” musician Louisa John-Krol.

“Louisa and [I] know each other from the old times on [the] Hyperium-Label. Fortunately [the] Internet has enabled us to stay in contact. When Louisa was on tour in Europe, we have met. We have made music together very intensively in that time. For example, we went to a church of a remote monastery high up on a hill, put up a microphone and performed medieval vocal improvisations. It’s the famous monastery found by Konrad of Wettin. Later on I composed music for a historical documentation on Konrad of Wettin and used Louisas phantastic recordings for it.”

To listen to sound samples, check out sToa’s MySpace page. You can also hear tracks from sToa’s latest album “Silmand” on my A Darker Shade of Pagan podcast.

The editorial pages are tackling the thorny free speech and religious expression problems presented in the Summum case currently before the Supreme Court. The Grand Junction Daily Sentinel hopes a solution can be found that “respects this nation’s undeniable Judeo-Christian roots”, while the Austin-American Statesman mulls over the thorny First Amendment problems of letting the Ten Commandments statue remain alone.

“Because the government allowed a memorial to troops who died in the Vietnam War does not mean it also must accept a memorial to those who died opposing it. But a different question arises when the government accepts a religious symbol because the First Amendment prohibits government from establishing a religion. If a monument to the founding tenet of Judaism and Christianity is acceptable in a public space, why are Wiccan pentagles or Summum aphorisms or Mormon angels unacceptable?”

Those two are hardly alone in voicing an opinion. The Concord Monitor says: “Bring it on!” Jewish groups are torn on which side to take according to the Jewish Telegraphic Agency, while The Week explores editorials that argue if the already existing Ten Commandments monument should be removed. All sides will have a while more to argue, since the justices won’t be handing down a decision on the case until Spring.

The Berkshire Eagle reports that a local Catholic Church had its statue of Mary destroyed. Who are the culprits? Fr. Michael Shershanovich seems to suspect dark occult powers!

“Shershanovich said several black marks had been spray painted on the statue and on the church in the weeks leading up to the desecration, including a pentagram, a five-pointed star synonymous with witchcraft.”

Yes, synonymous with witchcraft, because no other group or organization uses a five-pointed star. In fact, Witches love to roam the night and bash Catholic statues with road signs. That’s just how we roll. Has the secretive, thousands-strong, cult of disturbed teenagers struck again?

In a final note, The Chicago Tribune reports on the precarious fate of religious minorities in Iraq, and how one of them, the Mandaeans, are on the brink of extinction.

“Mandaeans, known as Sabis in Arabic, are just one of several minorities who have historically given Iraq its distinct identity as a cradle of religious diversity. All have suffered disproportionately from the spread of anarchy and extremism in the wake of the U.S. invasion. Iraq’s once-substantial Christian community has seen its numbers dwindle from about 800,000 to 500,000. Yazidis, a lettuce-shunning minority that venerates the forces of good and evil, have been targeted for attacks in their enclaves along the borders of Iraqi Kurdistan. Shabbaks, a Muslim sect that permits alcohol and is neither Sunni nor Shiite, have been persecuted in their ancestral lands near the northern city of Mosul.”

The fruits of a militant monotheism is that all heretics and potential rivals must be eliminated. Once the secular (though evil and tyrannical) government of Saddam Hussein was overthrown and war raged, the old rivalries were able to come to the surface once more. It seems increasingly unlikely that plans to restore the best elements of pre-war secularism will succeed, and many are expecting/fearing Iraq’s future will be as a Islamic Republic in practice, if not necessarily in name.

That is all I have for now, have a great day!

The Supremes and Summum

Jason Pitzl-Waters —  November 13, 2008 — 2 Comments

Longtime readers of this blog will remember that I have been harping on the case Pleasant Grove City v. Summum, argued before the Supreme Court yesterday, as being an important test case on the issue of government-sponsored religious displays, and the rights of minority religions regarding full inclusion.

“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.”

Since oral arguments in the case yesterday, the issues of governmental “free speech”, the full inclusion of minority faiths in the public square, and the separation of Church and State are getting quite a bit of attention from the mainstream press. The Wall Street Journal focused on the Church of Summum’s search for legitimacy in our society, interviewing religious scholars like Sarah “Earthly Bodies, Magical Selves” Pike about the group.

“Sarah Pike, a religion scholar at California State University, Chico, says that beyond its Egyptian trappings, Summum is a ‘UFO religion’ with some ideas borrowed from Mormonism, the religion into which Mr. Ra was born. They are ‘very much under the New Age umbrella, with an interest in Gnostic Christianity,’ she says. ‘The use of crystals, beliefs in aliens or UFOs, meditation practice and the turn to ancient Egypt are common in other New Age religions.'”

Over at, Dahlia Lithwick reminds everyone of the First Aphorism of Religion Cases*, describes how this case is a total mess, and has a feeling that if Pleasant Grove City wins, they’ll eventually lose.

“Summum isn’t before the court as a religion case. It was brought as a free speech case, and, as Jay Sekulow of the American Center for Law and Justice learns about three minutes into oral argument this morning, if he wins this case as a result of the court’s free speech jurisprudence, he will be back in five years to lose it under the court’s religion doctrine. The more zealously the city claims ownership of its Ten Commandments monument, the more it looks to be promoting religion in violation of the Constitution’s Establishment Clause.”

Meanwhile the Religious New Service seemed to focus on how the SCOTUS judges wrestled with all the different hypotheticals involved in ruling either way.

“The justices, in turn, asked questions that led to an additional range of hypothetical situations. Justice Stephen Breyer wondered if a government park could permit sculptures from Democratic sculptors but not Republican ones. Justice Samuel Alito asked if the government could refuse to list names of certain deceased soldiers on a memorial because it disagreed with their views … Justices grappled with arguments over whether the monuments in question are ‘government speech,’ ‘private speech’ or a mixture of both … Justice David Souter indicated that this consideration of private and governmental speech may be leading to new ground for the court, saying, ‘We haven’t had this kind of challenge before,'”

Everything in this case seems to come down to a battle between the idea of a government body having the right to free speech (including religious speech), and the idea that public land equals a public forum (with the government as caretakers, not gatekeepers). Either decision could have far-reaching affects on how religion expression is handled on public land. So far, and I’m no expert on taking the temperature of SCOTUS, things seem to slightly favor the New Agers (though the justices do seem concerned that “weird stuff” would litter our public parks if Summum wins), which could, in turn, dramatically change how local governments approach religious displays. We’ll have to wait and see where the judicial winds blow.

* According to Dahlia Lithwick, the First Aphorism of Religion Cases is: Only the religious convictions of other people are weird. Yours are perfectly rational.

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.