Washington » The U.S. Supreme Court has ruled unanimously that a small religious group cannot force a city in Utah to place a granite marker in a local park that already is home to a Ten Commandments display.
In a case involving the Salt Lake City-based Summum, the court said Wednesday that governments can decide what to display in a public park without running afoul of the First Amendment.
Pleasant Grove City rejected the group's marker, prompting a federal lawsuit that argued that a city can't allow some private donations of displays in its public park and reject others. The federal appeals court in Denver agreed.
Pleasant Grove Mayor Mike Daniels said the decisions affirmed what the city believed all along: The park reflects the city's identity and culture.
"[The decision] means the city can continue to collect and display artifacts relevant to its history in its outdoor park," Daniels said Wednesday morning.
He said the fact that court was unanimous in its decision was assuring as well.
While the decision allows the city to move forward, Daniels doesn't think it means an end to the controversy over Summum.
Brian Barnard, Summums attorney in Salt Lake City, said today that the Supreme Court's decision is limited in its scope and effect and that the big issues are yet to come in the case.
The appeal was only about whether Summum would be allowed to erect its monument while its lawsuit was pending, Barnard said in an emailed statement.
Now the case returns to the trial court for further proceedings and a trial.
"Most importantly, the emphasis in the case will shift to the Establishment Clause which prohibits government favoring one religion over another," Barnard said.
Pleasant Grove, he said, has adopted as its own the religious tenets of the Ten Commandments.
"Such endorsement violates the doctrine of the separation of church and state under the federal and state constitution."
That issue was not the issue in today's court decision, he said.
In his opinion for the court, Justice Samuel Alito distinguished the Summum's case from efforts to prevent groups from speaking in public parks, which ordinarily would violate the First Amendment's free speech guarantee.
Alito said "the display of a permanent monument in a public park" requires a different analysis.
Because monuments in public parks help define a city's identity, "cities and other jurisdictions take some care in accepting donated monuments," he said.