WASHINGTON – Supreme Court justices warily confronted a free speech dispute Wednesday over a small religious group's efforts to place a monument in a public park.
The justices seemed reluctant to accept the arguments put forth by the religious group known as the Summum that once a government accepts any donations for display in a public park, it must accept them all.
"Do we have to put any president who wants to be on Mt. Rushmore?" Chief Justice John Roberts asked.
Yet the court also was uncomfortable with the position of Pleasant Grove City, Utah, which rejected the Summum's request to erect a monument similar to a Ten Commandments display that has stood in the city's Pioneer Park since 1971.
Justice David Souter wondered how the city could accept the Ten Commandments display and then say, "'We will not on identical terms take the Summum monument because we don't agree with the message.' Why isn't that a First Amendment violation?"
The Salt Lake City-based Summum wants to erect its "Seven Aphorisms of Summum" monument in the park.
The Summum argued, and a federal appeals court agreed, that Pleasant Grove can't allow some private donations in its public park and reject others.
In the religious monuments case, Pleasant Grove officials are supported by federal, state and city governments, plus veterans organizations.
They worry that a ruling for the Summum would allow almost anyone to erect a monument in a public park, including people with hateful points of view, or lead to the removal of war memorials and other longstanding displays.
The case appears to raise questions of government favoring one religion over another, which is prohibited by the First Amendment's Establishment Clause. But the Denver-based 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals resolved the dispute on free speech grounds.
Some religious and civic groups want the justices to order the appeals court to review the case by looking at the religious freedoms issue.
The Summum say the Seven Aphorisms were given to Moses on Mount Sinai along with the Ten Commandments. Moses destroyed the tablet containing the aphorisms because he saw the people weren't ready for them, the Summum say.