Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Face off: 10 commandments vs. 7 Aphorisms

The Raw Story | Supreme Court to hear Ten Commandments companion monument case

I heard about this story on NPR on my way into work this morning, and it made me laugh. Basically, some crazy cult was not allowed to donate a monument to the "7 Aphorisms" for placement in the city park alongside a monument of the "10 Commandments", which were allowed to be donated and placed in the park by some other crazy cult. The first group of crazy cultists sued, alleging a free-speech violation, a position that the Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals agreed with. Now its on the way to the U.S. Supreme Court. Here are my favorite things about this story, in no particular order:

  • It's coming from the state of Utah, well-known for their religious tolerance and acceptance of alternative lifestyles. LOL
  • The "cult" is named "Summum" and "was founded in 1975 by Summum Bonum Amon Ra (or Corky Ra), née Claude "Corky" Nowell, after an encounter with 'Summa Individuals'." OK, two things here: 1) the guy's name is Corky and 2) all of the names of everything in their cult just sounds like somebody mumbling.
  • The first cult, Summum, actually sounds pretty cool:
Summum's one-acre compound sits 33 miles north of Pleasant Grove, in an industrial section of Utah's capital, surrounded by a graffiti-strewn building and a metal scrap center.

It's a tranquil spot, with fruit trees and peacocks. Dominating the site is a 27-foot-tall, 40-foot wide copper-shelled pyramid. An automatic door opens to a central space where members meditate.

Scattered about are preserved animals encased in bronze, Egyptian symbols, sofas, candles and bright murals adorning the walls. Off to the side is a large, stainless-steel fermentation tank, where sacramental "nectars" or "liquid knowledge" are produced for meditation sessions.

Oh yeah, those "sacramental nectars"? They're wine.

The city is arguing that once they accepted the first monument, the city adopted it as part of it's own free speech, and therefore are under no obligation to accept competing messages. As far as I can tell though, you can't have it both ways. Either this is free speech or it's not; either it's an unconstitutional establishment of a state religion or it's a public park open to other messages. The city's kind of in an impossible situation here- they have to argue that the 10 commandments display is not an establishment of state religion while also denying competing religions the right to a similar public forum.

They might have had a chance if they would have chosen to argue it based on the idea that it was part of the history of the area, and not part of government speech at all. Those types of arguments have been viewed sympathetically by the court, but I don't see how the city can win the case based on these arguments. Discussing a Texas case a few years ago

"No exact formula can dictate a resolution in fact-intensive cases such as this," Rehnquist read. "The determinative factor here, however, is that 40 years passed in which the monument's presence, legally speaking, went unchallenged.

"And the public visiting the capitol grounds is more likely to have considered the religious aspect of the tablets' message as part of what is a broader moral and historical message."

In a dissenting opinion, Souter wrote, "If neutrality in religion means something, any citizen should be able to visit [the capitol grounds] without having to confront religious expressions clearly meant to convey an official religious position."

So clearly, the court could be persuaded that the history of the monument should be taken into account, and the city may have won based on that argument. However, once the city began arguing that the 10 commandments were part of it's own free speech, then they are forced to admit that it is an establishment clause violation.

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