Summuming church-state disputes

Summum Pyramid The free speech story out of Utah involving the Church of Summum and its desire to gain legitimacy and prominence in part by placing monuments of its Seven Aphorisms in public parks is perplexing from a legal perspective. USA Today's Joan Biskupic notes that Supreme Court Justices were sent reaching for "dramatic, even fanciful, scenarios" to help understand the legal consequences of various possible rulings. Just as the Supreme Court struggled with the conflicting constitutional principles involved in this case, journalists had their work cut out for them in framing arguments on both sides, explaining the current legal principles that govern free speech and church-state conflicts and analyzing where this case could take the constitutional law that impacts much of how church and faith-based groups and government entities interact across the country. And that does not even include the issue of explaining the tenants and history of Summum.

At the core of the case is how the government is permitted to treat and respond to religious groups that do not have significant enough political control to dictate outcomes through the normal political channels. As Jason Pitzl-Waters notes, the case will significantly impact "the rights of minority religions regarding full inclusion."

One of the better reports on Wednesday's oral argument before the Supreme Court came from National Public Radio's Nina Totenberg. At the end of her audio report, she appropriately notes that the case presents "a Rubik's Cube of constitutional law."

Adam Liptak of The New York Times framed the case in a helpful manner by explaining that a case involving a Ten Commandments statue, a relatively new religion (based on ancient traditions) and municipality's desire to keep the statute and exclude the new religion has less to do with the establishment of religion and more to do with free speech. Liptak also notes a couple of the more unusual questions that came from the justices as they grappled with the legal principles they seem to be open to changing:

Would it be all right, Justice John Paul Stevens asked, for the government to exclude the names of gay soldiers from the Vietnam memorial?

And what was the church's position, Justice Antonin Scalia wanted to know, about "a monument to chocolate chip cookies"?

The case arrived at the court in unusual doctrinal garb, which explains some of the confusion. The justices are used to thinking about cases involving Ten Commandments monuments under the First Amendment's religion clauses, which prohibit government establishment of religion and protect its free exercise.

But this case, Pleasant Grove City v. Summum, No. 07-665, involves the First Amendment's free speech clause. The clause generally forbids the government from discriminating among private speakers in public forums on the basis of the content of their speech.

A day ago, USA Today previewed the case by highlighting how the case could result in a new approach to cases "at the nexus of free speech and religious rights." At first I found it strange to see next to the story a photo of now retired Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O'Connor, but the story makes clear that her presence in the article is ever-so-appropriate considering the key role she used to play in deciding cases such as these:

Justice Sandra Day O'Connor, who retired in 2006, was key in such disputes, crafting fragile majorities to try to ensure that government did not limit speech rights or promote religion.

In a 1995 case, she devised the current compromise standard. The court ruled Ohio could not keep the Ku Klux Klan from adding a Latin cross on Capitol grounds where other groups were allowed to put up a Christmas tree and menorah.

Today's question is whether the First Amendment's free-speech guarantee dictates that a government must agree to put up a group's donated monument once it has opened its public grounds to other organizations' monuments.

Lurking behind the legal principles and previous Supreme Court holdings is the issue of the role minority religions have in pluralistic societies. For a perspective that focuses less on the legal issues and more on the new religion at the heart of the debate, The Wall Street Journal's Jess Bravin raises "broader questions about the place of New Age beliefs in modern society."

Summum is based in a pyramid and mausoleum complex designed by Mr. Ra in Salt Lake City and decorated with the mummified remains of the members' pets. The religion revealed to Mr. Ra, who died earlier this year and, Ms. Menu says, is undergoing mummification, incorporated aspects of ancient Egyptian practice, along with the fermentation of sacramental nectar, or wine, and the preparation of a sexual ointment called Merh. Mr. Ra said it was derived from a recipe found on hieroglyphics.

"They're trying to revive a modern form of an old Egyptian religion, mixing in the ancient practice of mummification with the modern practice of cryogenics," says J. Gordon Melton, director of the Institute for the Study of American Religion in Santa Barbara, Calif. While it might seem incongruous to draw religious elements both from Egyptian polytheism and its ancient antagonist, the Hebrew prophet Moses, "it must be remembered that Joseph went down to Egypt and became the pharaoh's right-hand man," says Mr. Melton, who once visited the Summum pyramid.

The question presented in the article is appropriate as is the article's attempt to look at the broad perspective. The article notes the recent legal challenges involving Wiccan headstone symbols in military cemeteries but does not seek to fully explain the role of "new age" religions in America's pluralistic society. The role of "new age" religions and more specifically, minority religions, is a bigger question that certainly should be explored at greater depth.

Image of the Summum Pyramid used under a Wikimedia Commons license.

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