WASHINGTON — The Supreme Court agreed Monday to look at when cities can keep certain religious displays off public grounds, revisiting an enduring free speech issue in a case brought by the unconventional Summum faith.
Government regulation of expressive displays on public grounds has become one of the most controversial areas of the law. The questions test the constitutional guarantee of free speech and, often, the separation of church and state.
In 2005, the justices said officials must remain neutral toward religion and ensure that the overall message on monument grounds is secular. The justices allowed a Ten Commandments display at the Texas Capitol but not in a Kentucky courthouse because of the settings’ different messages.
The case from Utah involves religious symbols, yet the legal issues here arise solely in the context of free speech and how officials decide what kinds of monuments to allow.
According to Summum, established in 1975 and based in Salt Lake City, Moses received two sets of tablets. Before the Commandments, church doctrine says, he was given the “seven aphorisms” of a higher law. The Summum website says those relate to psychokinesis (the power of the mind to control objects); correspondence; vibration; opposition; rhythm; cause and effect; and gender.
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The city of Pleasant Grove rejected the group’s request to erect a monument of those aphorisms near a Ten Commandments display. The city allowed only displays that relate to its history or were donated by groups with long-standing ties to the community. The Ten Commandments monument, donated by the Fraternal Order of Eagles in 1971, is placed with several historical pieces, including a pioneer water well.
After Summum sued, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 10th Circuit ruled that when a city accepts donated monuments for a public park, it generally cannot favor some tributes over others. The 10th Circuit said the park was a “traditional public forum,” generally requiring the city to allow all displays.
The city’s appeal will be heard this year. Its lawyer, Jay Sekulow of the American Center for Law & Justice, contends the appeals court decision would “impose severe practical burdens” on local government. If it is allowed to stand, he said, cities that accept monuments from private groups would have to brace themselves for a flood of monuments from other groups.
Lawyers for Summum urged the justices not to accept the case, saying the 10th Circuit ruling was narrow and required only that government not discriminate among private displays in a public forum.
Pamela Harris, a Washington lawyer who wrote Summum’s brief, notes that the city historically has treated park displays as private speech, rather than as a message adopted by the government itself. That limits government’s ability to keep out some groups, she said.