November 12, 2008
The U.S. Supreme Court today heard oral arguments in the case of Pleasant Grove City v. Summum, 07-665 – the first major religion case since Van Orden v. Perry and McCreary County v. ACLU of Kentucky were decided in 2005.
Summum’s attorney, Pamela Harris, argued today that Summum has the free speech and equal access rights to place a monument in the same park where the city permitted the Fraternal Order of Eagles to erect a Ten Commandments monolith in 1971. Pleasant Grove countered by saying that it owns and controls the Ten Commandments monolith and, therefore, it represents government speech, which is not subject to traditional free speech and equal access claims.
The American Humanist Association filed a friend of the court brief in support of neither party.
“In my opinion, the Supreme Court will reverse the 10th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals and hold that city parks are not public forums for donated permanent displays,” said Robert Ritter, legal coordinator for the Appignani Humanist Legal Center, the legal arm of the American Humanist Association. “We further asked the Court to send the case back to the district court for argument on whether the Eagles Ten Commandments monolith in Pioneer Park violates the Establishment Clause.”
However, because Summum did not ask Pleasant Grove to remove the Eagles Ten Commandments monolith from the Pioneer Park, the case before the Supreme Court only indirectly raises First Amendment concerns of government endorsement of religion. Harris and Brian Barnard, Summum’s attorney in the lower courts, both told Ritter that Summum would amend its complaint to include an Establishment Clause challenge to the presence of the Eagles monolith when the case is returned to the lower courts.
According to AHA’s brief, “By itself, the text of the Ten Commandments sends an overwhelmingly religious message, and the context in which the monument is displayed [in Pioneer Park] only heightens the effect of government endorsement of this message.”
The brief also addresses the preference given by Pleasant Grove to the Judeo-Christian faiths. “The display of the Ten Commandments sends the message to nonadherents of Judeo-Christian religions that they are not full members of the political community….Although the Supreme Court has characterized a nearly identical Ten Commandments monument as nothing more than ‘acknowledgement’ of the role played by religion, there is no principled or neutral way to decide which beliefs are deserving of the government’s ‘acknowledgment’ and which are not.”
The brief of the American Humanist Association further argued against allowing the Summum religious group to display its aphorisms in Pioneer Park, stating: “The goal of government neutrality toward religion can only be achieved with equal regard for majority and minority beliefs by ensuring that the wall separating church and state is ‘kept high and impregnable’” (quoting Everson v. Board of Education (1947)).
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The American Humanist Association (www.americanhumanist.org) advocates for the rights and viewpoints of humanists. Founded in 1941 and headquartered in Washington, D.C., its work is extended through more than 100 local chapters and affiliates across America.
Humanism is a progressive philosophy of life that, without theism, affirms our responsibility to lead ethical lives of value to self and humanity.