Supreme Court Hears Utah Commandments Debate

A small Utah religious sect has told the U.S. Supreme Court that it should be allowed to erect a monument to its core beliefs alongside an existing Ten Commandments monument in a city park.

According to the Religion News Service, Pamela Harris, a lawyer for Summum, a 33-year-old spiritual group known for its unusual practice of mummification, said the exclusion of its tenets by officials in Pleasant Grove City, Utah, is unfair and unconstitutional.

“That’s a violation of the core free speech principle that the government may not favor one message over another in a public forum,” she said Nov. 12 at oral argument in Pleasant Grove City v. Summum.

But Jay Sekulow, the lawyer representing the city, said a lower court erred when it decided that Summum had the right to place its “Seven Aphorisms” in Pioneer Park because a Commandments monument had been placed there by the Fraternal Order of Eagles.

“When the government is speaking, it is free from the traditional free speech constraints of the First Amendment,” argued Sekulow, chief counsel of the American Center for Law and Justice, a law firm founded by TV preacher Pat Robertson.

Though sympathetic to Summum’s plight, Americans United filed an amicus brief supporting neither party. AU requested that the justices reverse the lower court’s decision so Summum can re-litigate the case under the framework of church-state separation, not freedom of speech.

“Our Constitution requires the government to remain religiously neutral,” said AU Executive Director Barry W. Lynn. “Government officials should never favor one faith over others.”

Lynn said the city never should have approved the Commandments monument, and then the courts would not have been forced to grapple with this difficult issue.