With its pyramids, and mummification, and nectars, and hairless blue aliens, Summum is an existential stew of transcendental Gnosticism and particle physics: Isaac Luria meets Star Trek Voyager.Lithwick quickly quips that it's always the other person's religion that seems weird, while your own religion seems "rational." But the reason the 10 Commandments seem more acceptable than the Summum "Seven Aphorisms" is not so much that we are not members of Summum -- maybe a few of you are -- it's that the 10 Commandments are a component of a long tradition that is elaborately integrated into the history of the United States.
That is the reason -- or part of the reason -- why the Supreme Court found -- in Van Orden v. Perry -- that it didn't violate the Establishment Clause for the state of Texas to have a 10 Commandments monument on its state capitol grounds. By the way, the 10 Commandments monument in Pleasant Grove is basically identical to the monument in Van Orden. The context is a little different though, in that the Van Orden monument has been where it was for more than 40 years, and the Pleasant Grove 10 Commandments only dates back to 1971. Also, the city of Pleasant Grove was founded by Mormons, and the 10 Commandments monument isn't the Mormon version of the 10 Commandments, so it doesn't reflect the history of the city in quite the same way.
Back to Lithwick:
In 2003, Summum's founder, Summum "Corky" Ra, requested permission to donate a monument to the park celebrating the Seven Aphorisms upon which their beliefs are based. (The Seven Aphorisms are, in brief: the principles of psychokinesis, correspondence, vibration, opposition, rhythm, cause and effect, and gender.) Summum holds that these aphorisms were revealed to Moses at Mount Sinai, but he demurred because his people were not yet ready for them. The Decalogue was the rewrite.Not surprisingly, the city doesn't want this monument in its park. But if they accepted the 10 Commandments monument from the donor (the Fraternal Order of Eagles), does it violate freedom of speech to reject the message Summum wants to express? Is it unconstitutional viewpoint discrimination to favor the Judeo-Christian speech -- in monument form -- over the similarly stone-carved Summum speech?
Summum isn't before the court as a religion case. It was brought as a free speech case, and, as Jay Sekulow of the American Center for Law and Justice learns about three minutes into oral argument this morning, if he wins this case as a result of the court's free speech jurisprudence, he will be back in five years to lose it under the court's religion doctrine. The more zealously the city claims ownership of its Ten Commandments monument, the more it looks to be promoting religion in violation of the Constitution's Establishment Clause.Is that really the law, you may ask, or is that some kind of joke? Here's the post I wrote about the cases at the time. Breyer's opinion was the deciding vote, and he eschewed any clear rule, opting instead for what he called called "legal judgment," "tak[ing] account of context and consequences measured in light of" the purposes of the religion clauses -- promoting tolerance and freedom.
Chief Justice John Roberts puts it to him this way: "You're really just picking your poison. The more you say that the monument is 'government speech' to get out of the Free Speech Clause, the more you're walking into a trap under the Establishment Clause. … What is the government doing supporting the Ten Commandments?"
Sekulow replies that the display is 100 percent Establishment Clause kosher in light of [Van Orden and its companion case McCreary]. Justice Stephen Breyer was the deciding vote in each of those cases, which—read together—stand for the current Third Aphorism of Religion Cases: Government establishment of religion is only impermissible when it freaks out Justice Stephen Breyer.
Lithwick's line -- "Government establishment of religion is only impermissible when it freaks out Justice Stephen Breyer" -- is a joke with some truth to it -- and also some serious inaccuracy. It assumes a conclusion that is in issue: that the monument is a "government establishment of religion." And Breyer seems like too cool a character to be "freaked out" by anything. Plus, he votes against government religious expression much more than we'd see on anything like a "freak out" standard. (See McCreary.) It would make more sense to say Breyer permits government religious speech when the idea of courts stopping it freaks him out.
Lithwick notes that Breyer signaled his dissatisfaction with the doctrinal rules -- the "artificial kinds of conceptual framework." Breyer sent very similar signals at oral argument in Van Orden, which I noted at the time.
But it looks as though there is room for a clear rule here:
Justice Samuel Alito observes that there is a difference between free speech, in the classic sense of protests, leafleting, and speech-making, and hauling around massive granite monuments, then demanding public-forum analysis be applied to "the Washington Monument or the Jefferson Memorial." Joseffer says that when the government is "acting as curator," it can engage in viewpoint discrimination. In other words, it can choose the speech. "You can't run a museum if you have to accept everything, right?" says Scalia.When government takes on the role of curator, it is no longer a question of the free speech of the original speaker. The government that chooses or rejects objects for presentation in one of its own displays is exercising its own speech, and it doesn't violate anyone else's free speech rights. It might violate the Establishment Clause, but that is another question.
Pamela Harris has 30 minutes to represent Summum, and Roberts hits her with the hypos: "You have a Statue of Liberty; do we have to have a statue of despotism? Do we have to put any president who wants to be on Mount Rushmore?"....I think it's pretty obvious that the city will win as the Justices (like Scalia) who support free speech for the government will have the support of the Justices (like Breyer) who look at real-world consequences and think practical thoughts.
Even the most doctrine-loving justices seem to be bothered by the practical problem of city parks becoming cluttered with hate monuments, weird stuff, and, eventually, rusted-out cars.
But there still should be some hand-wringing over the one hypothetical that really did freak out everyone -- well, not Scalia, but almost everyone: What if the United States had decided to express itself by excluding the names of gay soldiers from the Vietnam memorial? Justice Stevens posed the hypothetical, and the Justices struggle with it. From the transcript:
JUSTICE BREYER: That seems to be the problem here. And what I have in this is the -- the problem I have is that we seem to be applying these subcategories in a very absolute way. Why can't we call this what it is -- it's a mixture of private speech with Government decisionmaking -- and ask the question, as we do in election cases, is the restriction proportionate to a legitimate objective? I know how you're going to answer that question. You're going to say: Of course, it is. But what's interesting me is, are we bound in these cases to apply what I think of as an artificial kind of conceptual framework or are we free to ask what seems to me to be at the heart of the matter? The answer to Justice Stevens's hypothetically is: Of course the Government can't do that because it's disproportionate.Breyer seems to be verging on freak-out mode there.
JUSTICE STEVENS: I didn't get the answer. Did you --
MR. JOSEFFER [representing the United States, as amicus curiae]: Yes, the Government can choose to memorialize who it wants on the mall. When the Government is -- now, to be clear, that's under the Free Speech Clause.
JUSTICE BREYER: So what is the answer to the -- what is the answer to Justice Stevens's hypothetical? What is the answer to the homosexual hypothetical? What is the answer?
MR. JOSEFFER: The only question --So will the city win with a clearly stated rule, will the city win with a "legal judgment" based on the whole context, or will the city win based on a clearly stated rule that has an escape clause comprising Justice Stevens's Vietnam memorial hypothetical?
JUSTICE BREYER: Because that tests the theory.
MR. JOSEFFER: Well, as a matter of the Free Speech Clause, there are no limits on the Government's ability to speak freely. Under the Equal Protection Clause, the Establishment Clause, perhaps the Due Process Clause, there might be thought to be independent checks on the Government's speech. But the Free Speech Clause, whatever else it does, does not prevent the Government from speaking freely.
JUSTICE SCALIA: It seems to me the Government could disfavor homosexuality just as it could disfavor abortion, just as it can disfavor a number of other things that in -- in many States people are free to do. The Government can disfavor all of it, can't it?
MR. JOSEFFER: The Government would be powerless to do anything if it cannot first formulate and then express its own viewpoints....
JUSTICE KENNEDY: Does the law always require us to adopt an all-or-nothing position? Aren't there some extreme cases indicated by the hypothetical where the First Amendment does enter in? Do we have to decide this case that it's all or nothing?
ADDED: Lawprof Chris Lund reads the transcript:
... Summum argues that the display was the Eagles' message in 1971, and it's the Eagles' message now. But that claim is really hard to square with the fact that the display has been owned and controlled by the government and has been sitting in a government park for 36 years. The Eagles haven't really been involved since 1971 -- so how is this their speech? So Summum's counsel says that the crucial thing is this -- it can't be the government's speech until the City officially adopts it by some sort of resolution....Lund thinks Summum may lose 9-0.JUSTICE SOUTER: So this case -- your claim would disappear if this town in Utah had passed an ordinance saying we adopt the Ten Commandments Monument?Now Summum's counsel tries to say it's not a mere formality. She suggests that much of the Mormon population might object to the display because it's not the Mormon version of the Ten Commandments.... But besides being arguably a formality, it's difficult to see where the "official resolution" requirement would be coming from in terms of precedent or principle....
MS. HARRIS: It would, Justice Souter. We would no longer have an equal access right going forward --
JUSTICE SOUTER: But that's -- I mean, if that's all that's involved here, we're engaging in kind of a -- almost a silly exercise in formality.