City Can Reject Religious Display

By Robert Barnes
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, February 26, 2009

The Supreme Court yesterday unanimously agreed that permanent monuments in public parks are a form of government speech and that a small town in Utah was within its rights to reject an offer from a little-known religious group to have its "Seven Aphorisms" placed next to the Ten Commandments.

In a decision closely watched by government officials across the nation, the justices said officials in Pleasant Grove, Utah, did not violate the First Amendment rights of the Summum religious order by rejecting its monument.

Permanent monuments in city parks, Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr. wrote for the court, are erected "for the purpose of presenting the image of the City that it wishes to project to all who frequent the park," and thus governments can decide for themselves which to erect, which to accept from others and which to turn down.

"It's a landmark decision that clears the way for government to express its views and its history through the selection of monuments -- including religious monuments and displays," said Jay A. Sekulow of the conservative American Center for Law and Justice, which argued the case for Pleasant Grove.

Summum had contended -- and an appeals court had agreed -- that the city park was a forum for public speech. The First Amendment's free-speech clause meant that city leaders could not accept a version of speech with which they agreed and reject one with which they did not, the group's lawyers said.

But Alito said the analogy was wrong.

"A public park, over the years, can provide a soapbox for a very large number of orators -- often, for all who want to speak -- but it is hard to imagine how a public park could be opened up for the installation of permanent monuments by every person or group wishing to engage in that form of expression," he wrote.

The unified decision stood in contrast to the court's splits when it has considered public displays of the Ten Commandments in the context of the First Amendment's establishment clause, which prohibits government endorsement of religion.

In 2005, the court allowed such a display on the grounds of the Texas Capitol because of its historic placement among other monuments. But it disallowed the Ten Commandments in a Kentucky courthouse because the court said the display was meant to convey a religious message.

Alito and Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. have joined the court since those decisions, and the justices announced this week that they will hear a new establishment clause challenge in a case involving an eight-foot cross that has stood for more than 70 years in the Mojave National Preserve in California.

Pleasant Grove's 2.5-acre Pioneer Park has about 15 permanent displays, most of them donated by civic groups, including a granary, a wishing well, the city's first fire station and the Ten Commandments monument, which was donated by the Fraternal Order of Eagles in 1971.

In 2003, Summum, a Salt Lake City-based religion formed in 1975, sought permission to put its monument to the Seven Aphorisms there as well. Summum's name is drawn from a Latin term meaning "the sum of all," and the group's philosophy combines elements of Gnostic Christianity with Egyptian themes.

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