Thursday, February 26, 2009

Court Rules on Religious Displays in Public Parks

Yesterday, the United States Supreme Court ruled that a public park in Utah need not provide space for a religious monument reflecting the Summum religion. The case, Pleasant Grove City v. Summum, was brought due to the fact that members of the Summum religion wished to display a monument reflecting their religious beliefs; said monument would be in direct contrast to the park’s current monument displaying the Ten Commandments.

This case was brought under a First Amendment claim. However, unlike most cases dealing with religion, this case was brought under the freedom of speech clause rather than the freedom of religion clause. Justice Alito, writing for the majority, stated that the religious monuments in cases such as this are “best viewed as a form of government speech.” Justice Alito concluded that the Summum church’s First Amendment right to the freedom of speech was not violated, as the government has the right to choose what it wishes to say, and similarly what it wishes not to say.

Although this was a unanimous opinion, six of the Justices wrote concurrences which offered alternate viewpoints than that written by Justice Alito. One of the issues which concerned the other Justices is the apparent creation of government language which is not subject to First Amendment review. The Justices also differed in their opinions as to whether the Summum church could bring another challenge under the freedom of religion clause of the First Amendment.

Like many of the concurring judges, this decision is also bothersome to me as it does expand a government’s ability to seemingly bypass any First Amendment review. By merely calling a display a form of “government speech”, it would seem that a city would obtain support from this decision to prevent any monuments or displays that contradict the religious message of those in charge of the local government.

Also of issue is the seemingly blurred line of church and state. While the Supreme Court decision seems to argue that a monument to the Ten Commandments can be seen outside of a religious perspective, it is hard to be persuaded that these tablets, a very religious icon, can be seen any other way. To say then that a city can choose what qualifies as “government speech”, and such “government speech” seems to be tied to these religious displays, would seem to cross the line of the separation of these two institutions.

For the full article from the New York Times, click here.

No comments: