Supreme Court lets city refuse religious monument

WASHINGTON Wed Feb 25, 2009 4:06pm EST

Supreme Court justices listen as President Barack Obama gives his primetime address to a joint session of the Congress on Capitol Hill, February 24, 2009. REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque

Supreme Court justices listen as President Barack Obama gives his primetime address to a joint session of the Congress on Capitol Hill, February 24, 2009.

Credit: Reuters/Kevin Lamarque

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WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The U.S. Supreme Court ruled on Wednesday that a Utah city can refuse to put a religious group's monument in a public park near a similar Ten Commandments display.

The justices unanimously sided with the city of Pleasant Grove, which had said a ruling for the religious group would mean public parks across the country would have to allow privately donated monuments that express different views from those already on display.

The Summun religious group, founded in Salt Lake City in 1975, sought in 2003 to erect a monument to the tenets of its faith, called the "Seven Aphorisms," in a park where there are other monuments, including a Ten Commandments display.

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

The religious group sued and argued that it violated the constitutional right to free speech for the city to allow one message on public property while excluding another message. A U.S. appeals court agreed.

Attorneys for the city argued that the appeals court's ruling would require cities and states to remove long-standing monuments or result in public parks nationwide becoming cluttered junkyards of monuments.

The Supreme Court agreed. In the court's opinion, Justice Samuel Alito said the placement of a permanent monument in a public park was not subject to scrutiny under the U.S. Constitution's free-speech clause.

"It is hard to imagine how a public park could be opened up for the installation of permanent monuments by every person or group wishing to engage in that form of expression," he wrote.

If governments must maintain viewpoint neutrality in selecting donated monuments, they must prepare for cluttered parks or face pressure to remove long-standing and cherished monuments, Alito said.

'LANDMARK DECISION'

Jay Sekulow, who argued the case for the city, said, "It's a landmark decision that clears the way for government to express its views and its history through the selection of monuments -- including religious monuments and displays."

The U.S. Justice Department supported the city, which has about 31,000 residents, most of whom are Mormons. Department lawyers said a ruling for the religious group could force it to allow private displays at national parks and historic sites.

The Supreme Court last addressed the issue of displays of religious symbols on public property in 2005 when it allowed a Ten Commandments monument on a state Capitol grounds that also has numerous other monuments and statues.

The Rev. Barry Lynn of the group Americans United for Separation of Church and State reacted to Wednesday's ruling by saying all permanent religious symbols should be removed from government-owned parks.

Summum is a Latin term meaning the sum of all creation. Its followers believe Moses received two sets of stone tablets on Mount Sinai -- the Seven Aphorisms and the Ten Commandments.

One of the aphorisms states, "Summum is mind, thought; the universe is a mental creation" while another one states, "Nothing rests; everything moves; everything vibrates."

(Editing by David Storey)

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