Religious Free Speech: All or Nothing?11 October, 2008
Does majority truly rule in the United States? It certainly does when it comes to elections (the 2000 Presidential election excepted). What about free speech or religion? Does majority hold the trump card regarding religious displays? Some think so.
Back in 1975, a small group formed a new church, called Summum, in Salt Lake City, Utah. When the town of Pleasant Grove decided that it was appropriate to display a donated Ten Commandments monument in a government-owned city park, the Summum group figured (rather logically) that if one religious tradition can display a set of rules, then so should other traditions. Summum therefore sued to force Pleasant Grove to allow them to put up a donated Seven Aphorisms of Summummonument to go with the Ten Commandments.
The city claimed that forcing the town to allow the monument would (I kid you not) violate the city’s right to free speech:
“Pleasant Grove argues that its selection of privately donated monuments for display in Pioneer Park fits within this long tradition of government speech. As the speaker, the city argues, it is under no obligation to modify its message to accommodate Summum’s speech; instead, Pleasant Grove ‘is entitled to say what it wishes’ through its monuments and can ‘take legitimate and appropriate steps to ensure that its message is neither garbled nor distorted.'” (from The Wild Hunt)
So removing the Ten Commandments monument, or forcing the city to display the Summum monument, would garble the city’s message? Why would the city be delivering a religious message? Doesn’t the city (foolish of me, I know) exist to serve all citizens? Jewish, Christian, Mormon, Summumist, Atheist, Bogomil, Pagan?
A federal district court denied the Summum suit. A three-judge panel from the 10th circuit reversed it. A full circuit hearing split 6-6 and the US Supreme Court has agreed to here the case.
This term will . . . see a return of church-state tension in Pleasant Grove City v. Summum. Three years ago, in Van Orden v. Perry, the Court upheld a public Ten Commandments display, while finding other public Ten Commandments displays unconstitutional in McCreary County v. ACLU. Unlike in the earlier cases, the issue in Pleasant Grove City is not whether a Ten Commandments display in a public park is legal. Rather, the Court will decide whether a local government may refuse to display an “Aphorisms” statute donated by the religious sect Summum when the city already displays a donated Ten Commandments statute. . . . The Court has held in earlier cases that public officials may not discriminate against groups in public parks because of their messages or religion. The TenthCircuit applied the free speech test and required the city to either display all religious monuments donated by third parties or display none of the donated monuments. With concerns that the TenthCircuit decision will require the removal of historic religious displays, both local governments and religious groups will be closely watching this case. (From Positive Liberty)
The Supreme Court will decide whether one religious monument on public property opens the door to monuments from all religions and sects. The religious right (obviously) wants to ensure that majority rules and cities (and counties and states and the country) will be able to ‘take legitimate and appropriate steps to ensure that its message is neither garbled nor distorted.’ This ‘majority rules’ approach to free speech and religious speech strikes me as the exemplar for ‘tyrrany of the majority.’
I really hope that the Supremes do not allow governments to pick and choose. If Christianists are forced to recognize the right of other religions (or no religion) to exist, maybe they will stop pushing Christianity onto public lands. All or nothing might (and I know I’m being really optimistic here) give the right second thoughts about forcing religion into the city parks. I do not want to see every city park cluttered up with religious monuments donated by every single sect, religion, cult and tradition.
If a city allows one, they damn well better allow them all. Or allow none.