Religion and Spirituality


Supreme Court Rules Against Summum Religious Group in Freedom of Speech Case

February 25, 2009 05:44 PM
by Josh Katz
In a case that examined freedom of expression in public forums, the Supreme Court says a city does not have to place a religious groups’ monument next to the Ten Commandments.

Court Rejects Summums’ Argument

The Supreme Court justices unanimously ruled against the Summum religious group on Wednesday, denying its bid to have its “Seven Aphorisms” displayed next to a Ten Commandments monument in a Pleasant City, Utah park. The justices claimed that local officials had the right to reject Summum’s request because “such privately donated displays on public property represent ‘government speech,’” according to CNN.

“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,” wrote Justice Samuel Alito.

Summum based its argument on the right to free speech, according to The Washington Post; the case did not concern the clause of the Constitution pertaining to establishment of religion.

The 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals agreed with Summum, asserting that the Ten Commandments display, donated by the Fraternal Order of the Eagles in 1971, was private speech in a public forum, and therefore the city “could not arbitrarily refuse Summum’s request,” according to the First Amendment Center.

A brief from Pleasant Grove contested that acceding to Summum’s request “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 reasoned that the Ten Commandments display became government speech once it was donated to the park, and the city was not required to maintain parity in that case.

Those opposed to Summum’s request invoked a broader, slippery-slope argument: if the Supreme Court would have supported Summum, public places throughout the country would have had to accede to a potential flood of such requests; war memorials and patriotic historical monuments would have been threatened by displays honoring contrary points of view.

A brief filed by a coalition of veterans groups said that this would mean that if someone wanted to erect a monument to Japanese kamikaze pilots next to the Iwo Jima memorial, the request would have to be honored.

Similarly, the Gazette of Colorado Springs said: “Imagine the Statue of Tyranny in New York harbor, staring down the Statue of Liberty. It could feature the face of Adolf Hitler, or Pol Pot. Or how about a reverent statue of Osama bin Laden as part of New York City’s World Trade Center Memorial?”

But The Daily Herald of Provo, Utah, rejected Pleasant Grove’s argument that allowing the Summum monument would open up the park to countless other similar requests. The Herald wrote that the demand for such monuments is not as high as Pleasant Grove believes. The paper also states, “In a free society, ideas must compete in an open marketplace. Some ideas, especially religious ones, should not be given preferential treatment by the government.”

The Supreme Court decided on other religious cases in recent years. In 2005, the justices ruled that a Ten Commandments monument could remain on the property of a Texas statehouse next to other nonreligious symbols. But in Kentucky, the court said that a “similar display” had to be removed because “it violated the separation between church and state,” according to CNN.

Key Player: Summum

Summum is a small religious nonprofit group based out of Utah. According to adherents, “summum” means “the sum total of all creation.” The group claims to follow ancient Egyptian beliefs, and practices mummification of the dead. The organization’s Web site states that “Summum is the only organization in the world to offer this remarkable and distinguished tradition.”

Summum “Corky” Ra founded the nonprofit group he shares a name with in 1975. He died earlier this year. The organization, which is based out of a pyramid in Salt Lake City, claims to derive many of its beliefs and practices (which include mummification) from ancient Egypt.

According to The Washington Post, the group says the Seven Aphorisms “are lesser-known instructions that Moses received from God.” They aphorisms are: psychokinesis, correspondence, vibration, opposition, rhythm, cause and effect and gender.

Related Topic: “Supreme Court Splits on Ten Commandments” in 2005

Video: Stephen Colbert on the Ten Commandments in public places


Most Recent Beyond The Headlines