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February 26, 2009

Re:   U.S. Supreme Court Rules on Standards for Acceptance of Permanent Monuments for Display in Municipal Parks

Dear Mayor:

A unanimous Supreme Court released its decision in Pleasant Grove City, Utah v. Summum, No. 07-665, today.  The question before the Court was whether the Free Speech Clause of the First Amendment entitled a private group, Summum, to insist that the City permit it to place a permanent monument in a city park in which other donated monuments, including a Ten Commandments monument, were previously erected and currently displayed. The City had rejected Summum’s monument of the Seven Aphorisms on the basis that it did not meet its criteria – it did not directly relate to the City’s history, and was not being donated by a group with long-standing ties to the community. When the matter reached the Tenth Circuit, that court held that the park monuments constituted private, not government, speech, in a traditional public forum. Pleasant Grove City’s content-based choices and policy failed strict scrutiny review, and the City was ordered to accept the monument.

The Supreme Court reversed, finding that the placement of a permanent monument in a public park was a form of government speech and was, therefore, not subject to scrutiny under the Free Speech Clause. Although parks were a traditional public forum for speeches and other transitory expressive acts, the display of a permanent monument in a public park was not a form of expression to which forum analysis applied.

It is important to note, however, that although this case was litigated on the basis of free speech, which the Court found inapplicable in this context, the opinion pointed out that the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment did apply to government speech and would apply here.  The plaintiff did not argue a violation of the Establishment Clause, and therefore, the Court did not deal with the issue.  However, the opinion made it clear that prior holdings by the Court on the application of the Establishment Clause to religious displays on government-owned property are still valid. 
A copy of the opinion is available online at http://www.supremecourtus.gov/opinions/08pdf/07-665.pdf.
If you have any questions or concerns about this communication, please contact Deborah M. Kole, Staff Attorney, at the League, ex. 137, or at dkole@njslom.com

Very truly yours,

William G. Dressel, Jr.
Executive Director

 

 

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