First Amendment for me, not for thee

FIRST AMENDMENT FOR ME, NOT FOR THEE…. The New York Times has an item today on a First Amendment case at the Supreme Court that I’ve been following for a few years now, and which I find endlessly entertaining.

Across the street from City Hall [in Pleasant Grove City, Utah] sits a small park with about a dozen donated buildings and objects — a wishing well, a millstone from the city’s first flour mill and an imposing red granite monument inscribed with the Ten Commandments.

Thirty miles to the north, in Salt Lake City, adherents of a religion called Summum gather in a wood and metal pyramid hard by Interstate 15 to meditate on their Seven Aphorisms, fortified by an alcoholic sacramental nectar they produce and surrounded by mummified animals.

In 2003, the president of the Summum church wrote to the mayor here with a proposal: the church wanted to erect a monument inscribed with the Seven Aphorisms in the city park, “similar in size and nature” to the one devoted to the Ten Commandments.

The city declined, a lawsuit followed and a federal appeals court ruled that the First Amendment required the city to display the Summum monument. The Supreme Court on Wednesday will hear arguments in the case, which could produce the most important free speech decision of the term.

Keep in mind, the Summum isn’t trying to remove the Ten Commandments from the public park; adherents simply want equal space for their religious tenets. If one faith tradition gets to have a monument, others faiths should receive equal treatment. The government shouldn’t play favorites among faiths.

So, what is the Summum church? I don’t know much about the faith, but as I understand it, the group’s Aphorisms include statements such as “Summum is Mind, Thought; the Universe is a Mental Creation,” and “Nothing rests; everything moves; everything vibrates,” and “As above, so below; as below, so above.” What does this mean? I haven’t a clue, but that’s not really the point.

There are two pertinent angles to this. First is the legal issue. The federal courts, including the not-especially-liberal 10th Circuit, have ruled with the Summum, and given local officials a choice: allow all faith to erect their own displays in the park, or remove the other monuments.

Second is the more political issue. This controversy is a classic case for conservatives who say we need more religion in the public square — and then balk if they don’t like the religions asking for equal treatment. Indeed, religious right groups have rallied in support of the local officials’ position, insisting that promoting one faith while excluding others is the right way to go.

When conservatives say they support more public endorsement of religion, they mean their religion.

Justices hear arguments today tomorrow. I’ll keep you posted.