Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Bush Supreme Court takes crack at monumental issue

Whether a Utah city is obligated to permit a religious group to place a monument in a public park near a Ten Commandments marker is a much more difficult question than appears at first glance. The question, on which the U.S. Supreme Court heard arguments today, could impact the future of the First Amendment guarantees of religious freedom and freedom of speech against government interference as well as the power of government to control public property. And whatever the court decides to do could impact religious displays on public property in communities across the country, especially if the court wants that to happen. At oral arguments Wednesday, the nine justices seemed divided over whether Pleasant Grove City in Utah acted legally when it refused to allow the Summum religious group to put up a monument to the tenets of its faith in a park that contains a Ten Commandments monument, according to the Reuters international news service. Some of the court's most-conservative justices appeared to be concerned that a ruling in favor of the religious group would mean public parks anywhere in the country would be forced to allow privately donated monuments expressing any viewpoint. "You have a Statue of Liberty; do we have to have a Statue of Despotism? Or do we have to put any president who wants to be on Mt. Rushmore?" Chief Justice John Roberts asked, Reuters said. But some liberal justices seemed to agree that allowing one religious message on public property but not others violated free speech rights. In fact, Justice John Paul Stevens even asked whether a city could decide to only allow messages in a public part that it agreed with, Reuters reported. An appellate court ruled that the city must allow the Summum monument to be erected. The city argued that the lower court ruling was in error and a lawyer for the U.S. Justice Department agreed, saying the government can choose what monuments and opinions it wants on the National Mall in Washington and in other public parks across the country. "The Vietnam Veterans Memorial did not open us up to a Viet Cong memorial. When the Martin Luther King Memorial is completed on the Mall, it will not have to be offset by a monument to the man who shot Dr. King," the U.S. government contended. The attorney representing the religious group, Pamela Harris, argued that the city cannot allow a Ten Commandments display while denying Summum access for a display about its faith. "That's a violation of the core free-speech principle that the government may not favor one message over another in a public forum," Harris said. Both sides are correct. A public entity cannot choose one religious message over another, but a city (or a state, or the federal government) has a right to determine what it will or will not allow in its parks. There has got to be a reasonable way to resolve this so the government's authority ends where religious freedom is threatened. A ruling is expected by June.

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