From Tiny Sect, a Weighty Issue for the Justices
PLEASANT GROVE CITY, Utah — Across the street from City Hall here sits a small park with about a dozen donated buildings and objects — a wishing well, a millstone from the city’s first flour mill and an imposing red granite monument inscribed with the Ten Commandments.
Thirty miles to the north, in Salt Lake City, adherents of a religion called Summum gather in a wood and metal pyramid hard by Interstate 15 to meditate on their Seven Aphorisms, fortified by an alcoholic sacramental nectar they produce and surrounded by mummified animals.
In 2003, the president of the Summum church wrote to the mayor here with a proposal: the church wanted to erect a monument inscribed with the Seven Aphorisms in the city park, “similar in size and nature” to the one devoted to the Ten Commandments.
The city declined, a lawsuit followed and a federal appeals court ruled that the First Amendment required the city to display the Summum monument. The Supreme Court on Wednesday will hear arguments in the case, which could produce the most important free speech decision of the term.
The justices will consider whether a public park open to some donations must accept others as well. In cases involving speeches and leaflets, the courts have generally said that public parks are public forums where the government cannot discriminate among speakers on the basis of what they propose to say. The question of how donated objects should be treated is, however, an open one.
Last year, the federal appeals court in Denver sided with the Summum church and ordered Pleasant Grove City to erect its monument.
Although the case appears to present questions under the First Amendment’s ban on government establishment of religion, the appeals court said the case was properly analyzed under the amendment’s free-speech protections. That distinguishes it from most cases concerning the display of nativity scenes and the like on government property.
The city, supported by more than 20 cities and states, along with the federal government, has told the Supreme Court that the upshot of affirming the appeals court decision would be to clutter public parks across the nation with offensive nonsense.
A town accepting a Sept. 11 memorial would also have to display a donated tribute to Al Qaeda, the briefs said. “Accepting a Statue of Liberty,” the city’s brief said, should not “compel a government to accept a Statue of Tyranny.”
The brief for the Summum church said the relevant dispute was much narrower. “The government,” it said, “may not take sides in a theological debate.”
Governments seeking to avoid accepting donations they do not want have several options, the Summum brief contended. They can choose to display nothing. They can speak in their own voice by creating or commissioning their own monuments. And they can adopt the messages conveyed by donated monuments as their own, but only if they do so expressly and unequivocally.
The Summum church was founded in 1975, and it contains elements of Egyptian faiths and Gnostic Christianity. “Summum,” derived from the Latin, refers to the sum of all creation.
Followers of Summum believe that Moses received two sets of tablets on Mount Sinai and that the Ten Commandments were on the second set. The aphorisms were on the first one.
“When Moses came down from the mountain the first time, he brought the principles of creation,” Mr. Temu said. “But he saw the people weren’t ready for them, so he threw them on the ground and destroyed them.”
Summum’s founder, Corky Ra, says he learned the aphorisms during a series of telepathic encounters with divine beings he called Summa Individuals.
Mr. Barnard has represented the Summum church for many years. “They’re odd,” he said of his clients, with an affectionate smile. “They’re strange. They’re different.”
Bernie Aua, the church’s vice president, said the court case should not turn on how his religion was viewed.
“We have this thing called the Constitution,” Mr. Aua said. “The fact is, it’s a public park. And public parks are public.”