Government has the right to reject monuments

By By Steven Warrick

By Steven Warrick

The decision of the U.S. Supreme Court in Pleasant Grove City, Utah, et. al. v. Summum confirms the right of local governments to accept monuments from private donors for display in public places without incurring an obligation to display all such monuments. This is good news for all those who do not want to see the American Freedom of Religion devolve into a European-style “freedom from religion.” It likewise affirms the proposition that governments do not have to erect the monuments of every group that wants to donate them.

The case involved an attempt by the Salt Lake City-based religious organization Summum to erect a monument inscribed with its Seven Aphorisms in Pleasant Grove’s Pioneer Park. Summum wanted its display placed next to a Ten Commandments monument. When the City refused its request, the group brought suit in Federal District Court. After failing there, it appealed the matter to the Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals, which held that the city had to “erect the monument immediately.” The city appealed the matter to the Supreme Court, which announced its decision Thursday.

The Ten Commandments monument was donated by the Fraternal Order of Eagles in 1971. The Ten Commandments definitely have a religious significance, but they are nondenominational, being sacred to several large religions. They have also played an important role in both the history and culture of our state and nation. Finally, as the embodiment of right and wrong in our civilization, they are the foundation upon which our law is built. Moses and the Ten Commandments are depicted in a mural in the Park Building that dates from when the U’s College of Law was housed in that building.

Summum is a small spiritual group that was started in 1975 by Claude “Corky” Nowell, who later changed his name to Summum Bonum Amen Ra. Its beliefs are a mixture of Gnostic Christianity, Egyptian mummification rituals and the teachings of Amen Ra. The Seven Aphorisms embody Summum’s teachings. Leaving aside the question of validity, the Seven Aphorisms haven’t had the impact that the 3,500-year-old commandments have had, nor are they recognized by anyone but a small group of people.

Justice Samuel Alito reasoned that the right to erect a permanent monument on public property belonged to the government rather than individual speech.

“A government entity has the right to speak for itself…and to select the views that it wants to express,” he said.

Alito dismissed any objection that Summum’s free speech rights are infringed by the city’s refusal to display their monument.

“(The) city has made no effort to abridge the traditional free speech rights8212;the right to speak, distribute leaflets, etc.8212;that may be exercised by respondent and others in Pioneer Park,” he said.

Justice Antonin Scalia addresses the question of whether there is a violation of the Establishment Clause: “In Van Orden v. Perry, this Court upheld against Establishment Clause challenge a virtually identical Ten Commandments monument, donated by the very same organization (the Fraternal Order of Eagles), which was displayed on the grounds surrounding the Texas State Capitol. Nothing in that decision suggested that the outcome turned on a finding that the monument was only private speech. To the contrary, all the Justices agreed that government speech was at issue, but the Establishment Clause argument was nonetheless rejected. For the plurality, that was because the Ten Commandments have an undeniable historical meaning in addition to their religious significance.”

Governments should have the right to honor the history and heritage of their people and communities without having to accept every monument offered to them. Public places should neither be devoid of governmental expression nor so cluttered with the monuments of every group that wants a display that they look like graveyards.

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Steve Warrick