Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Religious Displays on Public Land. Where do you stand?

The Supreme Court of the United States consists of nine justices, two of whom were appointed by a single democrat (Bill Clinton), while the remaining were appointed by republicans (Gerald Ford, Ronald Regan, George Herbert Walker Bush, and George W. Bush). Today these justices questioned both sides in a case about privately funded religious displays on public land. A small religious group in Pleasant Grove, Utah known as the Summum church (founded in 1975) requested that the city display a three foot granite slab outlining its core principles, the "Seven Aphorisms" right next to a monument listing the Ten Commandments that has stood on this public park since it was donated by eagle scouts in 1971.

After reading these aphorisms my initial thought was that the guy who came up with this religion (Corky Ra) took some physics classes in college, smoked some pot and made up this mixture of Gnostic Christianity and ancient Egyptian faiths (including the practice of mummification). Consequently, Corky is also the proprietor of the first federally bonded winery in the state of Utah where he brews "Nectar publications" an alcoholic holy drink for use in "meditation" by the parishioners of Summum. I would say Mr. Ra is on par with Joseph Smith, Brigham Young, and L. Ron Hubbard as an up-and-coming American profit (I may have spelled that wrong). It occurred to me that many of the "aphorisms" are summed up by the Taoist yin and yang symbol representing a balance of opposites. I wonder if this case would have made it to the Supreme Court had a religious group wanted to erect a monument without words such as a giant yin yang.

While I initially thought that monuments like this on public lands should not be defended by the Supreme Court because this would mean that government is supporting specific religions I understand that this case is about equal representation in a public forum which has traditionally been upheld by the Supreme Court. This "public forum equality precedent" was set in 2005 when the Supreme Court approved the ten commandments on display within some public forums but not in others. The unapproved display was in Kentucky where the court pointed out that the ten commandments stood alone and were promoting a single religion, whereas the ten commandments carved in stone at the state capital building in Austin, Texas were permissible under the establishment clause of the constitution because in this instance the display was not blatantly promoting one religion over another. In the context of other markers throughout the capital grounds it was ruled that the ten commandments in Austin fit into an atmosphere of secular education about legal history or a public forum.

This 2005 precedent is coming back to haunt the justices this year with the case of Pleasant Grove v. Summum. It can be argued that the posting of these "aphorisms" next to the commandments would legitimize the commandments being there in the first place because it would say "hey, the government can allow religious displays as long as all those religions that want to be represented are represented equally and without preference."

I, like the Supreme Court, am torn on this case. On the one hand I do believe in maintaining freedom of speech even in the most obscure cases, but the conservationist in me does not want to see public green spaces littered with monuments to Zeus, Thor, Christ, or Ra. I do like art in public spaces and maybe these religious tenets can be considered as art. But in this context I do not think city governments have to erect any and all monuments or pieces of art offered to them, but if cities decide to start allowing some religious monuments to go up then they need to open the forum to any religion that wants to erect similar monuments.

During the winter of 2005 I was living in Fort Collin, CO and a local Rabbi wanted to place a menorah that he and his temple were sponsoring on public property near a Christmas tree for the eight days of Chanukah. The city of Fort Collins refused his request and this eventually became a nationally visible news story. My interpretation of this case is that the city of Fort Collins was preferentially allowing holiday displays that aligned with the beliefs of the majority of the city, while ostracizing a smaller religious sect. I felt that the constitutional rights of the Rabbi and his congregation were infringed on. In the case of the Summon religion and their granite slab I feel like the only fair thing to do is tell the city of Pleasant Grove to either remove all religious writings from the public land or allow those tasteful and aesthetically pleasing views of other religions to be erected as monuments of equal size and equal real estate value (we don't want to see the aphorisms of Summum on our way into the latrine). The city still has the right to refuse in this instance but has to be an equal opportunity censor.

I would not want the ten commandments or the aphorisms of Summon to greet me when I enter rocky mountain national park or any national park for that matter so I support the right of local governing bodies to say no to proposed plaques etc. but if a refusal is granted in one instance of a religious monument then there can be no religious monuments. It has to be equal exposure or none at all. This removes the potential appearance of government endorsement of religion.
Read more here here and here

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