The Supremes and Summum

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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 Slate.com, 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.