Different views on religious monument case


The Anti-Defamation League is praising, and the American Jewish Congress is disappointed by, a unanimous Supreme Court ruling Wednesday that allows a Utah city to refuse to permit a religious group’s monument to be placed in a public park alongside a government-endorsed Ten Commandments monument.

While the case dealt with the desire of the Summum religious group to erect its religious tenets, the high court decided it as a free speech case, not on "Establishment Clause" grounds. Thus, while the ADL disagreed that it was a free speech case, it was glad the court did not "disturb the bedrock constitutional principle that government may not favor one religion over another."

The American Jewish Congress, on the other hand, said the decision was "unobjectionable" because the Ten Commandments monument was treated as government speech. But its implications for the future are worrisome, said the group, because "todays decision will inevitably encourage municipalities to favor religious displays of majority faiths."Their full statements are below.

First, the ADL:

The Anti-Defamation League (ADL) welcomed today’s unanimous U.S. Supreme Court decision in Pleasant Grove City v. Summum, which rejected the right of a minority religious group to permanently display its religious tenets alongside a Ten Commandments monument in a public park.

A longstanding advocate for church-state separation, ADL joined with several organizations in a coalition brief urging the Court to consider the case’s church-state implications.

Marvin Nathan, ADL Civil Rights Chair, and Deborah Lauter, ADL Civil Rights Director, issued the following statement:
With its unanimous decision today in Pleasant Grove City v. Summum, the U.S. Supreme Court has appropriately acknowledged that the display of monuments in public parks constitutes government speech.  Although we believe the case was wrongly presented to the Court by the parties as a free speech case, it was significant that the Court noted, as part of its analysis, that when the government chooses monuments to display, it “must comport with the Establishment Clause” and cannot promote or endorse religion. 
The Court’s appropriately narrow decision does not disturb the bedrock constitutional principle that government may not favor one religion over another.  While we believe that Pleasant Grove violated this principle by displaying the monument of the religion it liked while rejecting the one it disfavored, this important issue remains alive for adjudication on another day. 
The case was an appeal of a 10th Circuit Court of Appeals ruling that the city of Pleasant Grove City, Utah violated the speech rights of adherents of the Summum faith by rejecting their request to erect a “Seven Aphorisms of Summum” monument in the city’s Pioneer Park, near a Ten Commandments marker that has stood in the park for 50 years.

And the AJCongress:

We are disappointed, but not surprised, by the decision of the United States Supreme Court allowing a city to choose to erect a Ten Commandments Monument at the request of the Fraternal Order of Eagles, while rejecting a bid by a small sect to erect a religious monument engraved with its belief statement in a public park.

The Court chose to treat the Ten Commandments monument as if it were wholly government speech.  So viewed, the decision is unobjectionable.  The problem is that the Court’s characterization of the speech as wholly official speech is a gross oversimplification of the facts, as we urged in our amicus brief.

This case posed no question under the Establishment Clause because Plaintiffs chose not to bring such a claim.  No doubt, future cases will confront the Court with the need to consider the Establishment Clause implications of municipalities selectively displaying symbols of majority faiths while refusing to display those of minority faiths.  The multiplicity of opinions today makes it plain that this is very much an open question.

In the meanwhile, today’s decision will inevitably encourage municipalities to favor religious displays of majority faiths.  Given the current court’s anemic construction of the Establishment Clause, those sorts of decisions are not likely to be upset.

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