Confusing Supreme Court Decision: State, Religion and Government "Free Speech"

The Supreme Court decision on Pleasant Grove City, Utah v. Summum offered an interesting way to sidestep the whole separation of church and state “thing.” It’s not the first time the high court was wrong, of course, and every time it’s wrong there are social consequences.  We’ll see just how intense the consequences are in this case.

The case began with a claim made by the Summum religious institution.  The Summum offered to donate a monument to a Pleasant Grove City public park.  The monument would present the Seven Aphorisms of Summum, which were reputedly given to Moses by God before he was bestowed the Ten Commandments.  According to Summum religion the Seven Aphorisms were too much for the ancient Israelites, so Moses destroyed them and went back for the Ten Commandments (I guess the 10 Commandments were a primer version of the Seven Aphorisms).  The Summum claimed that this monument should be acceptable as there was already a monument to the ten commandments in the park.  Instead, the city denied the application for the monument.

summum symbol

The Supreme Court, in a unanimous decision, concurred with the decision of the Pleasant Grove City government.  The Supreme Court defined monuments in a park as protected “government speech.” As a US entity the government can say whatever it wants.  Choosing one monument over another in a park is, in essence, making a statement and is, therefore, government speech.  As such denying the placement of a monument in a park is not subject to the Free Speech clause in the First Amendment.

The case for Government Speech in compelling.  Why shouldn’t the government have a right to say what it wants? The claim was also made that if every institution was allowed to put a monument in the park then the park would become overcrowded with monuments and would no longer serve the function of a park.  Uh…has this ever happened?

Of course, the court recognized some complexity with the government speech concept.  First, the court recognized that what the government says via monuments may not necessarily be what is interpreted by others. For everyone who sees the monument there may be a unique interpretation.  Also, the meaning of a monument might change of time, as is exemplified by the Statue of Liberty, which was once a symbol of America’s relationship with France and dedication to freedom, but is now a symbol for dispossessed immigrants.  So, this being said, that monuments could mean anything and this meaning might change over time, exactly what is the government trying to say by exercising free speech that is, at best, nebulous?

This concept is balderdash from the start.  If one speaks it is because one has something specific to say (if one is wise, according to Plato. Otherwise, the speaker is a fool who wants only to say something).  Any variation of that is mis-communication, misunderstanding, or misapplication.  If the government, in exercising its free speech, could be saying anything then is it really saying anything at all?

In this case it is.  What the government is saying is that it values the Ten Commandments over the Seven Aphorisms.  Since the government is the representative of the people, it is saying that those who believe the Ten Commandments have more representation than those who believe in the Seven Aphorisms.  Just exactly how is this not an example of an “establishment of religion.” If accepting the display of the Ten Commandments over the Seven Aphorism is not the same as accepting the tenets of Judea-Christian beliefs over those of a smaller sect, then exactly what is it.

It may be impossible to know what the government is saying/communicating by exercising its “free speech” by accepting one monument over another, but it is very possible to determine the essence of what is being said.  The Summum have just been informed that they are second class citizens, that their beliefs are subject to government imposed silencing relative to the dominant religious beliefs. The Pleasant Grove City government is also communicating quite succinctly to all other minority perspectives.  It’s saying, “we don’t want to hear what you have to say. Your viewpoint is not welcome here unless it conforms.”

Justice Souter at least recognized the nature of the message in his concurring opinion.  “It will be in the interest of a careful government (emphasis added) to accept other monuments to stand nearby, to dilute the appearance of adopting whatever particular religious position the single example alone might stand for.”  Of course. It’s the responsibility of a careful government to ensure that all members of its community share  a sense of inclusion. Apparently inclusion is not on the agenda in Pleasant Grove.

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