Supreme Court to Hear Argument on Religious Monument Case

Michael Daniels, the Mayor of Pleasant Grove City, Utah, is dancing on a tightrope as he explains why the City accepted "an imposing red granite monument inscribed with the Ten Commandments" for display in a city park, but won't accept for display a monument that depicts the Seven Aphorisms of the Summum religion. A similar dance will be performed in the Supreme Court tomorrow as the Court hears argument about the constitutionality of that choice.

The First Amendment prohibits government from establishing a religion. A corollary to that prohibition is that government may not favor one religion over another. So why is Pleasant Grove City not improperly favoring Christianity's Ten Commandments over the Summum's Seven Aphorisms? Mayor Daniels' explanations are unconvincing.

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Only donations concerning the city’s history are eligible for display in the park as a matter of longstanding policy, he said, and only when donated by groups with a long association with the city. The Fraternal Order of Eagles, a national civic organization, donated the Ten Commandments monument in 1971.

"Long association" seems to be a relative term.

The local chapter of the Eagles ... had only been in town two years when it donated the Ten Commandments monument.

Groups having "a long association with the city" are those with which the city has chosen to associate. If the city has had a longstanding association with Christian groups but not with, for instance, Jewish or Summum groups, that should not entitle the city to discriminate in its choice of the religious viewpoint it displays on public property.

Nor is it reasonable to argue that the Ten Commandments have some relationship to the "city's history." The city may be dominated by Mormons who accept the Ten Commandments, but that's exactly why the First Amendment requires governments to be neutral on matters of religion. Otherwise, the religious majority would exercise a veto over religious minorities simply because the majority has a longer or stronger history in a particular jurisdiction.

Daniels got one thing right:

The donations, Mr. Daniels went on, are transformed when the city accepts them. “Monuments on government property become government speech,” he said.

Exactly. That's why the Ten Commandments, standing alone, amount to an endorsement of Judeo-Christianity. If that is the only religious viewpoint the city endorses, it has established a preferred religion in violation of the First Amendment.

It would be far better for municipal governments to get out of the business of displaying religious symbols. When a city chooses to do so, however, it must be open to displaying the symbols of all religions, without regard to the city government's view that some religions have been more important to the city than others.

A federal court of appeals ruled that Pleasant Grove City may not discriminate among religious viewpoints, and ordered it to accept the Seven Aphorisms monument. The Supreme Court should affirm that result. If Pleasant Grove City doesn't like it, the City should take down the Ten Commandments and get out of the business of displaying monuments to any religion.

There are some sticky legal issues in this case, including the Summum's reliance on the First Amendment's protection of free speech rather than the Establishment Clause. As this analysis suggests, that distinction might or might not make a difference. There may also be a question of fact as to whether the Ten Commandments monument is still on city property, although Daniels' statement above seems to admit that it is. My take on the case reflects my gut instinct about the important issues in the case, not necessarily the issues as they were framed to the Court.

More information about the case is available here.

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  • Display: Sort:
    Seems logical.... (5.00 / 2) (#1)
    by kdog on Tue Nov 11, 2008 at 12:08:58 PM EST
    that if the city wants to put up a Christian monument, they have to allow every other superstition to put up a monument of their own.  And let Rastafarians enjoy their sacrament in front of their monument while they're at it...religous freedom and all:)

    Absent that, surely the Eagles can buy or find some private property to put up their monument to avoid the whole controversy.  Or better yet, put up a massive granite monument to the Bill of Rights instead of Moses' Top Ten on public property...something we all believe in and can enjoy.


    Shaping up to be (none / 0) (#2)
    by KeysDan on Tue Nov 11, 2008 at 12:40:45 PM EST
    another 5/4 decision, with Scalia, Thomas, Alito, and Roberts dissenting.  

    There are several versions of the (none / 0) (#4)
    by inclusiveheart on Tue Nov 11, 2008 at 01:30:33 PM EST
    Ten Commandments too. I wonder what version is already in the park.

    asdf (none / 0) (#17)
    by wystler on Tue Nov 11, 2008 at 04:10:25 PM EST
    Mormon-approved, no doubt. (however it happens to read)

    The question seems (none / 0) (#3)
    by eric on Tue Nov 11, 2008 at 12:46:45 PM EST
    so clear to me that I can't believe it made it to the SC.

    Oh, and BTW, which version of the Ten Commandments is on that monument? The version that you select is choosing one religion over another, all by itself.

    i suspect they thought, (none / 0) (#9)
    by cpinva on Tue Nov 11, 2008 at 02:35:48 PM EST
    since utah is the province of the mormons, they could get away with it. apparently, they have for almost 40 years.

    The question seems so clear to me that I can't believe it made it to the SC.

    the irony here is that these are the same people who rant about the danger of islamic fundamentalist terrorism.


    No Separation of Church & State (none / 0) (#5)
    by STLDeb on Tue Nov 11, 2008 at 02:18:12 PM EST
    The court has strayed so far from the nonsense of "separation of church & state", as there is no such thing in the U.S. Constitution.

    The First Amendment to the Constitution:  "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances."

    So tell me again about the First Amendment saying church & state are to be separate?  This amendment states (as I see it) that the government shall not establish a religion (like the Church of England) but it allows the free exercise thereof.

    I am not a constitutional junkie or anything so if someone can please explain to me what the problem is?  

    Now, I'm all for free speech but what this lawsuit opens up is if a city accepts a monument/statue of any kind, it has to accept all even if they are offensive or distasteful?  What I see happening is city(ies) not accepting any monuments/statues of any kind.  

    From wiki: (none / 0) (#6)
    by sarcastic unnamed one on Tue Nov 11, 2008 at 02:25:23 PM EST
    Separation of church and state is a political and legal doctrine that government and religious institutions are to be kept separate and independent from each other.[1] The term most often refers to the combination of two principles: secularity of government and freedom of religious exercise.[2]

    The phrase separation of church and state is generally traced to the letter written by Thomas Jefferson in 1802 to the Danbury Baptists, in which he referred to the First Amendment to the United States Constitution as creating a "wall of separation" between church and state.[3] The phrase was then quoted by the United States Supreme Court first in 1878,[4] and then in a series of cases starting in 1948.[5] This led to increased popular and political discussion of the concept.


    Thank You (none / 0) (#7)
    by STLDeb on Tue Nov 11, 2008 at 02:28:52 PM EST
    Thank you for quick reply.  

    What I don't get is, okay they're supposed to stay separate but it's the government who are supposed to stay out of the church.  

    These type of lawsuits, to me personally, stretch the boundaries of the "separation" issue.


    not at all (none / 0) (#18)
    by wystler on Tue Nov 11, 2008 at 04:20:10 PM EST
    by bringing a version of the Decalogue onto public land, the government is endorsing a specific faith

    addendum (none / 0) (#19)
    by wystler on Tue Nov 11, 2008 at 04:21:36 PM EST
    that park land belongs to all residents of the city. as a commons, it must respect the rights of all interested.

    First of all (none / 0) (#8)
    by eric on Tue Nov 11, 2008 at 02:32:25 PM EST
    it is important to remember that the amendment is not only limited to actions of Congress.  The First has been incorporated by operation of the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth.  So the actions of Utah, and it's cities are bound by the First.

    Second, the argument that having a religious monument in a public park is that it operates to "Establish" a religion by endorsing it.  Putting up the Ten Commandments is endorsing whatever religion one ties to them (there are several different versions).  This effect is emphasized when, as here, the monument is displayed but other religious monuments are being denied.  Clearly and endorsement.  According to the Establishment Clause, Government shouldn't do that.

    Looking at this from a normative standpoint, the easy way for me to look at this is to assume some city decided to put a giant upside-down pentagram in a park after it was donated by the Church of Satan.  Is that endorsing or establishing that religion?  It surely wouldn't make people very happy.  I feel the same way about the Ten Commandments in the park.  It tells me that the government is endorsing a religion that isn't mine.  I find that wrong.


    Eric (none / 0) (#10)
    by STLDeb on Tue Nov 11, 2008 at 02:47:34 PM EST
    This is why I like this site.  I don't post much but when I do I like it because this site does not tolerate name calling, foul language, etc.  Just nice, thought-provoking discussions.

    I thank you for making your point which was very fair, even-handed &, I have to say, even thought-provoking (about the pentagram -- I see your point in that).

    I will still politely disagree with you as my pointis our fine beloved country has strayed so far away from what this country, its founders and our early presidents believed in, of God & Country (USA).


    For the most part, (none / 0) (#12)
    by TChris on Tue Nov 11, 2008 at 03:01:52 PM EST
    our founders and early presidents remembered the religious oppression that exists when a government prefers or grants special status to one religion (like the Church of England) over all others.  To prevent that from happening here, they included the Establishment Clause as well as the Free Exercise Clause in the First Amendment.

    Give me that ol' time Enlightenment (none / 0) (#22)
    by gdeering on Tue Nov 11, 2008 at 07:38:20 PM EST
    I think it's also good to point out that our many of our Founding Fathers could be call the Founding Atheists, at the fore front (surprisingly) is George Washington, not Jefferson.

    Deists might have believed in a creator (it's my understanding that they rejected a spiritual Jesus) but they only needed a little more reenforcement from science to go all the way.  I mention this because the "Christian Nation" spin is far from the truth and far from the reasons that created this country.

    When the Constitution mentions religion it is usually to keep it from creeping into government.

    I'm glad I wandered over here, thanks for highlighting the case.



    this idea that our country's founding (none / 0) (#26)
    by of1000Kings on Wed Nov 12, 2008 at 01:38:43 AM EST
    fathers had their noses in the bible seems to be something that was fabricated in the 20th century, around the same time that some people in this country decided that they should be able to decide the vices and morals of their neighbors, no weight given to the means by which this (taking over the morals of the country) would take place......

    I don't mind saying that this country is founded upon religion, and even a western-religion, but I think it crosses the line when people start to say that we are a christian nation, when in fact we've only been a christian nation since the christians decided to try and take the country over in the 50's...and the revisionist history continued throughout the 60's, 70's and 80's until the youth of today now believes that 'in god we trust' has always been the country's motto, when in fact it hasn't...

    I seriously doubt that many modern christians have a ton in common with the Quakers and severe Protestants that first landed here...so that argument doesn't really float for me either...


    A "Christian nation" (none / 0) (#29)
    by Peter G on Wed Nov 12, 2008 at 11:45:33 AM EST
    Not to disagree with the main point of your post, but the expression "This is a Christian nation" unfortunately dates, not to the 1950s, but to a US Supreme Court decision in the 1870s or 1880s (no time to look it up just now) justifying one or another of the attacks on the Mormons that were then underway by the federal government -- used to explain why it didn't violate the First Amendment to persecute and discriminate against the Mormons for their beliefs and practices.  Because LDS wasn't a real "religion," that is (i.e., truly Christian), just a dangerous cult.

    interesting... (none / 0) (#30)
    by of1000Kings on Wed Nov 12, 2008 at 02:45:08 PM EST
    I had forgotten about the treatment of the Mormons in my state of Missouri and bordering areas (well, I hadn't forgotten the treatment, but I totally glazed over how the treatment was handled by the government)....

    Concurrence, with one additional point (none / 0) (#24)
    by RiderOnTheStorm on Tue Nov 11, 2008 at 09:33:34 PM EST
    Why would a group request that the city put up a particular religious monument (or display) in a public place?

    That is, as opposed to that same group putting up the same monument in their place of worship or on the private property of a member of that group?

    I realize that this is a rather simple-minded question, but I really do have a purpose for raising it -- and that is to suggest that groups making such a request are doing so because they hope to use the public's resources (e.g., a public place) and the implicit government sanction (e.g., permission to display) to promote their particular belief system.  Otherwise...what would be the point?  Why not just leave the monument in its crate somewhere?

    It's my opinion that government cooperation with such a request violates the Establishment clause and is thus, on its face, unconstitutional.


    An excellent (none / 0) (#28)
    by eric on Wed Nov 12, 2008 at 09:55:29 AM EST

    Offensive to whom? (none / 0) (#11)
    by TChris on Tue Nov 11, 2008 at 02:55:43 PM EST
    I'm all for free speech but what this lawsuit opens up is if a city accepts a monument/statue of any kind, it has to accept all even if they are offensive or distasteful?

    Some people find the Ten Commandments offensive or distasteful.  The point is that these city officials are offended by one religion's message but not by another's and they are giving a preference to the religion they like.  In my judgment, this they cannot do.

    A different question would be raised if something about the design or content of the monument was offensive, without regard to its religious content.

    A different question is also raised if the government's speech is unrelated to religion.  A statue commemorating Ulysses S. Grant doesn't need to be matched by a statue of Robert E. Lee, for instance.


    "Judeo-Christianity" (none / 0) (#13)
    by Peter G on Tue Nov 11, 2008 at 03:09:25 PM EST
    "the Ten Commandments, standing alone, amount to an endorsement of Judeo-Christianity"

    There is no such religion as "Judeo-Christianity."  The Jewish version of the Decalogue is often rendered quite differently from Christian versions, which are often presented so as to emphasize aspects of the Torah ("Old Testament") as precursors of the Gospels ("New Testament").  Have you ever seen a "Ten Commandments Monument" erected by a Jewish group?  Or by Catholics, for that matter?  

    These monuments are designed to promote one (or both) of two things: (a) fundamentalist protestant Christianity, or (b) the 1956 Cecil B. DeMille movie called "The Ten Commandments," starring Charleston Heston.  The monument involved in this Supreme Court case is of the latter type -- donated by the Fraternal Order of Eagles in the 1956 as part of a national publicity campaign funded by MGM: "One legacy of the movie are scores of public displays or monuments of the Ten Commandments that DeMille paid to be erected around the country as a publicity stunt. Known as decalogues, the displays were set up by the group Fraternal Order of Eagles, sometimes in or near government buildings. Several have been involved in court battles over whether their presence is said to violate the First Amendment to the United States Constitution's Establishment Clause."


    I stand corrected. (none / 0) (#14)
    by TChris on Tue Nov 11, 2008 at 03:28:11 PM EST
    Thanks Peter.

    No problem, Chris (none / 0) (#20)
    by Peter G on Tue Nov 11, 2008 at 04:37:23 PM EST
    I learned this "fun fact" while acting as co-counsel for our ACLU chapter, arguing against a Ten Commandments plaque on a courthouse wall.  Ours was donated to the town in the 1920s by an evangelical group.  We lost on the basis that by the time it was challenged in 2000 or so it had become a historical artifact.  Also learned during the prep for that case that "Decalogue" is not an appropriate term for the Commandments from the Jewish point of view, since some rabbis see as many as 14 commandments in there, and don't count the Christians' "First" ("I am the Lord thy God ...").  That is, in Jewish tradition, it's not so clearly "ten" at all.  Point being, it's controversial and sectarian theology -- the first five being entirely religious in nature.  And almost equally important, it's not (as sometimes disingenuously claimed) a foundational document of American democracy, like the Mayflower Compact.

    two points i must take issue with: (none / 0) (#21)
    by cpinva on Tue Nov 11, 2008 at 06:01:09 PM EST
    1. judao-christianity: not a religion by itself, and no one, to my knowledge, has ever claimed that it is. it is, however, a tradition; where do you think the first christians came from? as well, christ was a jew (no, he didn't convert on the cross!). what separated the jews/christians from the pagan sects was the monotheistic concept; a single god. that's pretty much the judao-christian tradition.

    2. ten commandments: actually, many rabbis (and catholic theologins) believe that moses brought down as many as 50 commandments from mt. sinai. this was eventually whittled down to ten, easy to remember ones, for popular consumption. these were co-opted by the christians, as a central starting point for the faithful.

    And then there's this (none / 0) (#23)
    by TChris on Tue Nov 11, 2008 at 09:33:05 PM EST
    from the linked article:

    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.

    And more:

    Su Menu, the church's president, agreed. "If you look at them side by side," Ms. Menu said of the two monuments, "they really are saying similar things."

    The Third Commandment: "Thou shalt not take the name of the Lord thy God in vain."

    The Third Aphorism: "Nothing rests; everything moves; everything vibrates."

    Wow (none / 0) (#15)
    by eric on Tue Nov 11, 2008 at 03:29:36 PM EST
    I did not know that.  Movie hype.

    Man, I thought for sure (b) was a joke, (none / 0) (#16)
    by sarcastic unnamed one on Tue Nov 11, 2008 at 03:42:22 PM EST
    but no.

    I hope the supremes know how to use google and wiki.


    The DeMille connection (none / 0) (#25)
    by Peter G on Tue Nov 11, 2008 at 10:52:55 PM EST
    is acknowledged by the Fraternal Order of Eagles, sponsor of the 1956 monument (and 150 others like it) on their website, which is cited in some of the Supreme Court briefs in the case.

    Judeo-Christian has started to take on (none / 0) (#27)
    by of1000Kings on Wed Nov 12, 2008 at 01:44:53 AM EST
    a totally different meaning over the past 20 years as the extreme fundamentalist evangelicals have began aligning themselves with Israel and the Jews in a very interesting, but confounding way...

    at least for me anyway, but maybe I'm the only one...