By Robert Barnes
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, April 1, 2008
The Supreme Court said yesterday that it will decide whether a city's decision to place a monument to the Ten Commandments in a public park means it also must make room for the display of other directives purportedly sent from above.
In this case, a religious group that operates from a pyramid outside Salt Lake City wants to place what it calls the Seven Aphorisms in a city park, contending that the words are lesser-known instructions that Moses received from God.
Pleasant Grove City, Utah, said no. But a federal appellate court has agreed with the religious group Summum -- founded in 1975 by its leader, Summum "Corky" Ra -- that if a city accepts the Ten Commandments, it opens itself to requests from others and may not discriminate.
Unlike the Supreme Court's most recent cases over government display of the Ten Commandments, the Utah case is a free-speech challenge that does not involve the Constitution's provision on establishment of religion. It will be heard next term.
Pleasant Grove City, one of several Utah municipalities that received monument requests from Summum, is represented by Jay Sekulow of the American Center for Law and Justice.
It said in a statement that letting the lower court's ruling stand "could force local governments across the country either to dismantle a host of monuments, memorials, and other displays including long-standing patriotic and historical displays" or open up the public spaces "to all comers."
The city says that once it accepted the Ten Commandments from the Fraternal Order of Eagles in 1971, the display became "government speech" rather than private speech, and it does not have to be balanced with other viewpoints.
"In short, accepting a Statue of Liberty does not compel a government to accept a Statue of Tyranny," the city's brief said, nor would erecting a monument to a war hero allow the display of a monument denouncing war.
But a panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 10th Circuit in Denver said the city did not come up with the monument to the Ten Commandments, a private group did. Its placement in a public park, a traditional venue for public speech, meant that government could not discriminate if other groups wished to display their beliefs. The full appeals court split 6 to 6 on the issue, which meant the panel's ruling held.
Washington lawyers Pamela Harris and Walter Dellinger, representing Summum, urged the court not to review what they said was a "narrow and fact-specific decision" and said there is no reason to believe that "a plague of offensive monuments will clutter public spaces throughout the country" if the ruling is allowed to stand.