Court to rule on city park's religious monument

WASHINGTON Mon Mar 31, 2008 2:01pm EDT

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WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The U.S. Supreme Court said on Monday it would decide whether a religious group must be allowed to put its monument in a city park near a similar Ten Commandments display.

The justices agreed to hear an appeal by the city, Pleasant Grove in Utah, arguing that a lower-court ruling for the religious group could affect whether cities around the nation must display privately donated monuments on public property.

The Summun religious group, founded in Salt Lake City in 1975, sought to erect a monument to the tenets of its faith, called the "Seven Aphorisms," in a park where there are other monuments, including one dedicated to the Ten Commandments.

Pleasant Grove rejected the request, citing its requirement that park displays be related to city history or donated by groups with longtime community ties, like the Fraternal Order of Eagles that gave the Ten Commandments monument in 1971.

The Supreme Court last addressed the issue of displays of religious symbols on public property in two cases involving the Ten Commandments in 2005.

The court in one case ruled that framed copies of the commandments in county courthouses violated church-state separation, but said a commandment monument can be displayed on a state Capitol grounds that also has numerous other monuments and statues.

The Summun group argued the city violated its constitutional free-speech rights under the First Amendment by excluding its monument while allowing the Ten Commandments.

A U.S. appeals court agreed and ruled that it violated freedom of speech for a city government to allow one group's message on public property while excluding another group's message.

"If government creates an open forum, it can't pick and choose among religions," said Barry Lynn, executive director of the group Americans United for Separation of Church and State.

But attorneys for the city argued that the appeals court's ruling will require cities and states to remove longstanding monuments or permit groups to display any monument in public places.

Led by Jay Sekulow of the American Center for Law and Justice, the attorneys said acceptance of a donated monument does not require "that a government park be turned into a cluttered junkyard of monuments contributed by all comers."

The Supreme Court will hear arguments in the case during its upcoming term that begins in October.

(Editing by Eric Beech)

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