Justices: City Isn't Obligated to Display Religious Monument
The U.S. Supreme Court ruled Wednesday that a city park in Utah does not have to include a monument of a small religious sect even though it already features a Ten Commandments monument.
Summum, a Salt Lake City-based group, had argued that officials in Pleasant Grove City, Utah, violated its free speech rights when they did not permit a proposed monument of the group's beliefs.
The "placement of a permanent monument in a public park is best viewed as a form of government speech," wrote Justice Samuel Alito in the unanimous opinion, "and is therefore not subject to scrutiny under the Free Speech Clause" of the First Amendment.
Jay Sekulow, the attorney who argued the case for the city, cheered the decision as a "great victory" for municipalities. He had argued that a decision against the city would have great ramifications, perhaps forcing a "Statue of Tyranny" to be erected near the "Statue of Liberty."
Alito said Summum had "derided" such fears. The justice, however, felt they were "well-founded." A town with a war memorial could have been forced to erect a monument questioning why veterans had fought in that war, Alito reasoned.
"This would have … changed the way local government landscaped their parks and communicated their messages," said Sekulow, chief counsel of the American Center for Law and Justice.
Brian Barnard, an attorney representing Summum, said he still hopes the religious group can win its fight on other grounds and place its proposed "Seven Aphorisms" monument in the park.
"It's one round in the battle," he said, noting that the overall case is headed back to a hearing in a trial court.
He now expects to amend the case with an argument that Pleasant Grove City is violating the First Amendment's Establishment Clause because the Supreme Court has ruled that the 15 permanent displays in Pioneer Park—Including the Ten Commandments—are "government speech."
"As far as I'm concerned, the city has admitted an Establishment Clause violation by saying 'we've adopted the Ten Commandments and we have refused to allow another religious set of beliefs to be displayed in the park,'" said Barnard, managing attorney with the Utah Civil Rights & Liberties Foundation. "A government must remain neutral and must not say we adopt these religious beliefs as our religious beliefs."
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.
Justice Antonin Scalia, joined by Justice Clarence Thomas, said Pleasant Grove City has no need to be concerned that it has violated any portion of the First Amendment. The Ten Commandments monument in the city's park is "virtually identical" to the one the court permitted in 2005 to remain on the Texas State Capitol grounds.
"The city ought not fear that today's victory has propelled it from the Free Speech Clause frying pan into the Establishment Clause fire," Scalia wrote. "The city can safely exhale."
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Other coverage on the case includes:
Supreme Court lets city refuse religious monument | In the court's opinion, Justice Samuel Alito said the placement of a permanent monument in a public park was not subject to scrutiny under the U.S. Constitution's free-speech clause. (Reuters)
Court rules for Utah city in religious marker case | In a case involving the Salt Lake City-based Summum, the court said that governments can decide what to display in a public park without running afoul of the First Amendment. (Associated Press)
Supreme Court rules for Utah city in religious marker case | The court said monuments in a park are the government's property. They are not akin to a speaker standing in a public park voicing his views. (Baltimore Sun)