Tuesday, March 03, 2009

Summum and the Establisment Clause

The recent edition of Religion Dispatches includes an interesting discussion of the recent Supreme Court ruline on the Utah-based Summum group and its desire to have a monument placed in a public park. The story, by Bruce Ledewitz, includes the following byline:

Why was a Utah city allowed to prevent a minority religion from erecting a monument next to a monument of the Ten Commandments? The Supreme Court's Summum decision, litigated in the shadow of the Establishment Clause, raises more questions than answers.

After summarizing the case and commenting on it in terms of free speech, Ledewitz then moves to a consideration of Establishment Clause issues. He writes in part:

"But, as Justice Scalia wrote in a concurrence, this free speech case was 'litigated in the shadow' of the Establishment Clause. In general, government is permitted to say anything it likes. But one limit on the doctrine of government speech is that the government may not prefer one religion over another. Pleasant Grove City is not permitted to put up a display of the Ten Commandments while refusing to accept the Seven Aphorisms if its reason for doing so is that the Ten Commandments are true and the Seven Aphorisms are not.

"The underlying uneasiness about the case is that the city might well have been making exactly this judgment. The rejection of the Summum monument had a jury-rigged and ad hoc quality about it. Undoubtedly, if Summum had in fact been centered in the community, the city would have found some other, allegedly neutral, reason for rejecting its monument."

This case that brings together a minority religion and issues of free speech and constitutional issues in a religiously plural society is worth reflecting on further. Those interested in reading this article in a single page format can find it here.

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