Pleasant Grove City, UT v. Summum: public religious displays

The SCOTUS is hearing arguments in this case today. For those not familiar with it, here is the Pew article.


The city argues that it has a policy of

and they are merely following that policy.

I’m not sure when Summum came to Pleasant Grove City, nor what amount of time would constitute “longstanding”, nor am I sure that this is a sound legal defense for not accepting the display. I suppose that’s why it’s gone all the way to the SCOTUS.

From what I’m reading, this could affect displays in parks of all kinds across the country. I think many of the scenarios I’m reading about as possibly horrific (needing to display memorials dishonoring veterans, for example, alongside memorials honoring veterans) are way off base, since this case seems to be about religious displays, but the case is also talking about free speech rights, so maybe I’m wrong on that count.

IANAL, but it seems to me that they (Summum) make a good case. My personal conclusion, with the information I have, is that the city should take the monument and display it. They don’t have to display it next to the 10 Commandments, as requested; it can be in another area entirely.

Or they can make a new policy that no displays will be accepted and/or maintained by the city, and that any displays left in parks will be considered trash and removed to a disposal facility (i.e. landfill, etc.). Of course, this would probably require the city to remove all existing displays.

I’m hoping to see other opinions, and from our lawyerly Dopers, some information about possible precedents and interpretations.

I hope the Summum win so I can petition to get a Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster memorial up.

Honestly…this is why there needs to be separation of church and state. While I am not particularly offended by a Ten Commandments monument or 7 Aphorisms or Spaghetti Monster noodle bowls I think we can see it will start to get silly.

IANAL but I bet the SCOTUS allows the Ten Commandments to stay while denying the 7 Aphorisms thing. Curious to see how they torture their arguments this time.

On public ground, in order for private religious displays not to be considered endorsement, it tends to have to be part of a “free speech zone.” Now, the government can restrict what can be permitted in the free speech zone, but it cannot do so based on the content of that speech, or the religious message involved. I’m not sure the “long standing ties to the community” argument will hold up - the directly related to the cities history would be more likely to, but it is harder to claim the ten commandments as directly related to the cities history.

The trouble with free speech generally is that it means people with unleasant views get to air them. Unpleasant views are, of course, those views directly opposed to mine. Views somewhat opposed to mine are not unpleasant, just wrong-headed. Unfortunately I am led to believe people hold the same beliefs about my opinions. So I guess we are just stuck with each other.

It is tough to limit this only to religious displays. Pacifist religions could display anti-war materials, with a legitimate argument it is a religious display; it would, of course, provoke outrage from some veterans groups. The World Church of the Creator would, I am sure, have displays which cause problems for many people.

But those aren’t the type of religious displays that the local authorities that permit this kind of thing want. While they pay lip service to multi-faith tolerance, it is majoritarian religious symbols they want, and it is majoritarian religious symbols they predominately get.

I’m going to stick my neck out as a non-atheist here, but I don’t see what the big deal is. The park isn’t overtly a shrine for state-sponsored religion, but a recognition of the founders of the city who happened to be driven by religious documents. As the Summum people didn’t organize until the mid-70s, and the city of Pleasant Grove was incorporate in the mid 1850s, it’s safe to assume that the Summum group wasn’t part of that event.

Removing the existing ten commandments sculpture is silly. It’s like asking to remove the statues of Mohammad and Justice from the SCOTUS building. These weren’t placed there as an official governmental endorsement of Islam and (what? dunno) ancient Greek religions, but as a symbolic reminder of various historic influences to our modern notions of law.

IMHO, this particular fight is being picked for the sake of the fighting, and not to reverse any specific action or policy of the city against the Summum group. Poor form. If you want to strike a blow against the overwhelming presence of the LDS church in the area, go after the shady land-swapping deals in SLC or make the Boy Scouts more inclusive of non-Mormons and gays.

(Disclaimer: Yes, I’m LDS. However, I think the city of PG is the armpit of the state, and I have no emotional investment in the status of their grubbly little park or their religious iconography.)

I side with Pleasant Grove. Based on that summaru of Summun’s case, it seems to me that any band of freaks would be allowed to demand a monument in any park, at any time. It could easily lead to the ruin of parks.

That is not a nice way to refer to the Mormons.

I dunno. If it were a bunch of people trying to put up “flying spaghetti monster” statues just to raise a stink, I’d agree. But the Summun’s have apparently been in the area for 30+ years and have a sizable following, so its not like they’re just making up this stuff to make trouble. I rather think not having the government decide who counts as a “religion” vs who is just a “band of freaks” is part of the point of the first amendment.

San Jose has a display of the diety Quetzacoatl… or maybe a dog turd. :pHard to tell. We paid $500K for it, even!

While certainly not a band of freaks, people have done just that in the past. As far as I know the dispensation of the Mojave Desert cross is still up in the air. The US Congress, sympathetic to the cries from veteran’s groups, even designated the cross a war memorial and transferred the land underneath it to the VFW.


Personally, I would rather see no displays with religious content than have to watch the courts, legislatures, or park service employees cherry pick which are acceptable and then try to justify each one.

If the VFW can put up their monument and then be given the land, why can’t the Church of the Subgenius or the Temple of the Vampire or the Boy’s & Girl’s Club?

I laughed at the caption accompanying smaller models of the finished sculpture:


Amen! I mean, yeah! I hasten to point out that just about every major religion extant was started by a “band of freaks”.


I personally have no reason to disparage your beliefs on this matter, but my impression is your thesis can hardly be used as an argument before the court.

Most likely not, thus far in my life, my only function in a court has been to stand up when they say “The Defendant will rise”. They were right, I did.

Now that’s good prognosticating. I hope they had the decency to tell you some lottery numbers while they were at it.

Actually, the band of freaks could only make that demand if there had already been precedent. Part of what is in contention is that the city has accepted other religious monuments, and so they have no right to turn one down from a “non-approved” religion.

That’s why I said I can see one possible solution would be to say no to any display from a religious group, and then remove the ones already in the park.

If the city had not accepted one, then the free speech aspect would likely still be argued, but the plaintiff could not point to past actions and ask “why them and not us?”

Personally, I’d rather just have a rule that grandfathers in any religious displays from pre-Lemon and bans all others. But that’s not really a workable legal rule.

I am loathe to have Courts determine the inherent value in different religions so that some are allowed and some are not.

This is the problem I have. I think in a good few situations, having a religious monument to recognise “the city’s history” or “longstanding ties to the community” is a reasonable thing to do. But I would not want to put the power of deciding precisely what that entails into some people’s hands.

Out of interest, though, is the city’s policy a-ok under the First Amendment?

I think that is part of what the SCOTUS is going to have to determine. To me it doesn’t quite pass muster, but IANASCJ.


Arguments in this case are tomorrow (12 November 2008), not today.