Nov 10, 2008

A Ten Commandments lawsuit to be heard this week by the U.S. Supreme Court inappropriately focuses on free-speech rights rather than church-state separation, says Americans United for Separation of Church & State.

The justices will hear oral arguments Wednesday in Pleasant Grove City v. Summum.

The case tests whether Pleasant Grove City, Utah, can accept a Commandments monument for permanent display in a local park while turning down a monument showing the tenets of another faith. The Summum religion sued the local government after its display was rejected.

The 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that Summum had a free-speech right to display its monument next to the Commandments monument.

Normally when the government discriminates against one faith while preferring another, a lawsuit would be filed charging a violation of church-state separation. In this situation, due to roadblocks in pre-existing 10th Circuit law, attorneys for Summum made their argument based on First Amendment free-speech principles, not Establishment Clause grounds.

Americans United is sympathetic to Summum’s plight, but is concerned that Summum’s free-speech argument could weaken church-state separation legal doctrine.

The watchdog group filed an amicus brief in support of neither Pleasant Grove City nor Summum and requests the Supreme Court to reverse the lower court’s decision. That way, Summum can re-litigate this case under the framework of church-state separation.

“Our Constitution requires the government to remain religiously neutral,” said the Rev. Barry W. Lynn, Americans United executive director. “Government officials should never favor one faith over others.

“Pleasant Grove City should never have approved the Commandments display in the first place,” said Lynn. “If the city had said no as it should have done, we wouldn’t be facing this mess at the Supreme Court.”

Lynn, however, urged the justices to approach the case with great caution.

“If the Supreme Court lets Summum’s free-speech argument stand,” he said, “it could open the door for government to use private speakers to spread a particular religious belief.

“It would also mean if the government allows any group to erect a permanent monument on its land, it must allow all proposed monuments to be erected with no restrictions,” he continued. “This could lead to groups putting up permanent monuments promoting hateful messages on public land throughout the country.

“Summum should have the chance to re-argue this case under the correct legal doctrine of church-state separation,” Lynn concluded. “Let’s hope the Supreme Court comes to the right conclusion here.”

Americans United is a religious liberty watchdog group based in Washington, D.C. Founded in 1947, the organization educates Americans about the importance of church-state separation in safeguarding religious freedom.