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.



  1. these sort of cases, where religions are battling each other, could do more to shut them up than us atheists.

  2. Oz: That’s my hope. Of course, you put it much more succinctly than did I. Thpppt.

  3. Some years ago in this town there was a move afoot to display the ten commandments in the library when the Roy Moore thing was going on.

    It was decided to allow other expressions in as well.

    A friend of mine, a Jew, told me, “This shall all end in tears”.

    The christians seemed hell-bent on supremacy, damaging other displays, and displaying anger.

    One angry man was escorted out by the police after he kicked down and tore up a poster with The Humanist Manifesto on it. He was bellowing, red faced, that it was “nothing but mental pornograhy” and certain other rantings that dealt with the love of “Lord Jesus”.

    My Jewish freind was right.

    It was odd, though. Comments were continually made in the local paper that there was an “anti-christian bias”, that “Christians can’t get a fair shake in this town”, that other views should not be allowed because
    this is a christian nation, and ‘they’re’ just tearing everything good down.

    Acts of vandalism and violence (in defense of their omnipotent {alleged} deity are excused and condoned. Simply saying, “How about…?” was an act of bigotry that was intolerable and “anti-christian”.

  4. I just love living in Utah…

  5. There’s a portion of me that says let’s fill that park up with religious statues in order to show the futility of catering to religion. There wouldn’t be much of a park left.

  6. Sarge: It is amazing that, if the rest of the world does not drop their pants, bend over, grab their ankles, buy the drum of lubricant (and add the sand and the crushed habanero peppers), it is ‘anti-Christian bigotry and persecution.

    Poodles: Your state. Keep them there. Please.

    Soitgoes: Welcome to my blog. I really don’t have a problem with these asshats filling up different areas with monuments to fantasy, just as long as all (including atheists) can share equally in the idiocy (if they so choose).

  7. Sarge has the best stories.

    Thanks for bringing this up, Billy. I love following stuff like this. As, I would imagine, do we all.

  8. 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.

    You really are an idealist, aren’t you? If Christians are forced off of public land, they’ll simply redouble their efforts to clog our street corners with their preachers, our airwaves with their healers, and our doorsteps with their evangelists. One thing they won’t do is go away without a fight. And they will go back to the public land and try again.

  9. Chappie: Yeah, I am. Guilty as charged. Of course, aren’t street corners public land? I don’t expect them to go away without a fight. I just hope they realize (and obviously they don’t) that religious freedom of speech really is an all or nothing proposition.

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