Display of Religious Tenets Debated
Thursday, November 13, 2008
The way Summum tells it, when Moses first came down from Mount Sinai, he didn't have the Ten Commandments in his hands: He was holding the Seven Aphorisms.
The aphorisms are the guiding principles of Summum, a religious organization that operates from a pyramid in Salt Lake City and practices mummification. The group's founder, Summum "Corky" Ra, asked that the sayings be displayed near a Ten Commandments monument in a public park in Pleasant Grove, a Salt Lake suburb.
The city said no, triggering a court fight that yesterday wound up before the Supreme Court. The justices debated whether the city violated Summum's First Amendment rights and must erect the aphorisms, sayings such as "Summum is mind," "Everything vibrates" and "The measure of the swing to the right is the measure of the swing to the left."
Based on yesterday's argument, it is unclear whether this particular court is swinging right or left. Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr., an appointee of President Bush, immediately questioned Pleasant Grove's decision to accept the donated Ten Commandments monument in the first place, saying it could violate the First Amendment ban on government establishment of religion. Summum's attorneys filed their challenge under a different part of the amendment, the free-speech clause.
"What is the government doing speaking and supporting the Ten Commandments?" Roberts asked.
But Roberts later argued the other side, expressing sympathy for the views of the Bush administration, 14 states and a coalition of veterans groups, all of which filed briefs opposing a lower-court decision that backed Summum's free-speech argument. That decision ordered Pleasant Grove to put up the Seven Aphorisms, saying a city cannot accept one privately donated monument but reject another if it disagrees with that group's message.
If that decision stands, opponents argue, governments could be forced to erect monuments some would find highly objectionable -- a memorial to the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, for example, might stand alongside a commemoration of al-Qaeda.
"When you have a Statue of Liberty, would you have to have a Statue of Despotism?" Roberts asked.
Justice David H. Souter, a member of the court's liberal wing, said Pleasant Grove had engaged in "viewpoint discrimination" when it rejected Summum's guiding principles. "Why isn't that a First Amendment violation?" he asked.
Although the debate was spirited, it lacked some of the rancor of the last time the high court took up a dispute over the Ten Commandments. In 2005, a sharply divided court issued decisions forbidding the commandments from being displayed on the walls of two Kentucky courthouses but allowing their presence on a granite monument on the grounds of the Texas Capitol.
Those cases were argued under the First Amendment's establishment clause forbidding government endorsement of religion; Summum's lawyers chose the free-speech argument instead. The primary issue yesterday was a somewhat arcane debate over whether the city's decision to accept the Ten Commandments monument made it "government speech," rather than private speech, which would mean it does not have to be balanced with other viewpoints.
Beyond the legalities, much of the interest in the case has focused on the small religious sect at its center. Founded in 1975, Summum is described by its Salt Lake City lawyer, Brian Barnard, as based on "Gnostic Christianity and New Age philosophy," along with ancient Egyptian traditions.
One of those traditions is mummification, which is practiced on people and pets. The body of Summum founder Ra, who died this year, is currently undergoing the six-month process.
Central to Summum are the aphorisms, which the group believes were inscribed on the original stone tablets handed down by God to Moses. According to this account, Moses found that the Israelites were incapable of understanding the principles. So he destroyed the tablets, revealed the aphorisms to only a select few and returned to Mount Sinai to receive a second set of tablets -- the Ten Commandments.
In 2003, Ra wrote to the mayor of Pleasant Grove and asked that the aphorisms be displayed in the city's Pioneer Park, which contains artifacts including a replica log cabin, a Sept. 11 memorial and the granite Ten Commandments monument, which was donated to the city in 1971 by the Fraternal Order of Eagles.
Pleasant Grove refused Ra's request, saying it accepted only monuments directly related to the city's history or donated by groups "with longstanding ties to the Pleasant Grove community," according to court documents. Summum sued in federal court in Utah, saying its First Amendment rights had been violated, and a panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 10th Circuit in Denver agreed.
Pamela Harris, a Washington lawyer for Summum, told the justices yesterday that once a city accepts a privately donated monument from one group, rejecting others is a core constitutional violation, especially when the venue is a traditional public forum such as a park.
But Jay Sekulow of the American Center for Law and Justice, who is representing Pleasant Grove, countered that "when the government is speaking, it is free from the traditional free-speech constraints of the First Amendment."