A Utah religion whose followers practice mummification is at the center of a U.S. Supreme Court case that is delaying a permanent home for a World War II monument honoring fallen American servicemen.
Because the case centers on the constitutionality of erecting a donated religious monument on city property, the Army has backed off deciding whether to accept, and where to permanently place, a memorial to 40 U.S. troops who perished in a 1943 plane crash in Australia.
The service said it will wait before accepting any donated marker to see what position the Supreme Court ultimately takes on whether the city of Pleasant Grove, Utah, must allow the spiritual group Summum‘s monument in a city park.
It’s unclear when the Supreme Court will hear arguments in Summum v. Pleasant Grove or rule on it. Duchesene City is also a party to the case, because it has a similar monument.
As a result, the delay means there is no chance for an Army decision by the crash’s 65th anniversary on June 14. Shortly after takeoff on that date in 1943, the ill-fated troop transport crashed at Bakers Creek in Queensland, Australia. Forty servicemen aboard died, while just one—the late Foye Kenneth Roberts of Wichita Falls, Texas—survived.
The cause of the crash remains unknown.
“Honor delayed is honor denied,” said Robert Cutler, executive director of the U.S. branch of the Bakers Creek Memorial Association, which hopes to place the monument in the Washington D.C. area.
At issue is a controversy over a Summum monument to the religion’s seven guiding principles. The group believes God originally gave its “Seven Aphorisms” to Moses, but then found they were too advanced for the Israelites to understand. So Moses destroyed the original tablets, went back and got the simplified Ten Commandments.
Summum is a nonprofit organization founded in 1975 by the late “Corky Ra”, who was born Claude “Corky” Nowell, according to the religion’s Web site, www.summum.us. The IRS declared the practice tax exempt in 1986.
Ra said he had encountered “beings not of this planet” who passed spiritual knowledge on to him. As for mummification, the Summum followers believe that treating a person’s remains in that manner makes for a smoother transition to the afterlife.
The religious group says it has the right for its monument to be placed on government property. Its Web site requests donations for Summum’s free-speech campaign.
“Throughout the years, city, state, and local governments across the country erected monuments containing the Ten Commandments,” the site says. “They allowed certain people to take advantage of a situation to promote their point of view.”
In 2005, Summum sued and won a free-speech lawsuit against the city of Pleasant Grove, Utah, after officials there rejected placing the group’s monument in a city park.
Pleasant Grove appealed the ruling, arguing that the Summum monument does not meet the requirement that displays in the park must be historical. The appeals court disagreed, finding that Pleasant Grove had to erect Summum’s monument because the city park is a public forum that already contained a donated Ten Commandments marker, according to court records.
As a result, the court found, Pleasant Grove must accept other markers donated by private parties for permanent display. Pleasant Grove appealed and, on March 31, the U.S. Supreme Court agreed to put the case on its docket.
And that’s the snag for the Army, which has put in limbo any decisions about donated markers, such as the one for the Bakers Creek plane crash. Families of the soldiers, two World War II veterans’ organizations, retired military members and citizens of Queensland, Australia contributed money for the monument.
“Due to the ramifications that this case may have on the Army’s acceptance of the Bakers Creek Memorial or any other monument funded by private funds, the Army will await the Supreme Court’s decision to assess its options,” Keith Eastin, Army assistant secretary for installations and environment, wrote in the April 29 report to federal lawmakers.
The Army has already rejected advocates’ first choice of Arlington National Cemetery as the permanent home for the monument, citing concerns about dwindling space and legal requirements. Advocates for those killed in the crash said they would probably be satisfied if the monument were placed at nearby Fort Myer.
The Army says it regrets the delay.
“There were a lot of people in the Army working to get this memorial in place for this year’s anniversary, and we are disappointed in the delay,” Col. Russell Santala, Eastin’s executive officer, said.
The Army recommendation was due April 1 but the service requested more time. The latest delay also did not sit well with an advocate for the families.
“We believe the 40 casualty families deserve more respect from the Army than to fob it off to some undecided court case, not even involved with Army or federal government land,” Cutler said.
For now, the Bakers Creek memorial sits on foreign soil at the Australian Embassy in Washington, awaiting the eventual Army report.
Cutler proposed a solution.
“If the Army really wants to do the right thing here, perhaps they might consider issuing a $1 purchase order for the monument, thus avoiding the donation problem entirely,” he said.