Wednesday, April 18, 2007

10th Circuit Rules Largely In Favor of Summum "7 Aphorisms" Monuments

In decisions yesterday, the U.S. 10th Circuit Court of Appeals dealt with requests by members of the Summum faith that they be permitted to put up a display of their Seven Aphorisms in parks in two separate Utah cities. In each case, the city park already had a Ten Commandments display in it. Today's Salt Lake Tribune reports on the decisions.

In Summum v. Pleasant Grove City, (10th Cir., April 17, 2007), the court of appeals held that Summum was entitled to a preliminary injunction permitting it to erect its monument in a city park that already featured a number of displays relating to the city's pioneer history as well as a 10 Commandments monument donated by the Fraternal Order of Eagles. Holding that a park is a traditional public forum, the court rejected the city's attempt to restrict park monuments on the basis of their historical relevance to the city, saying that the city offered no reason why this was a "compelling" interest that would permit content based restrictions on monuments. While the city might create content-neutral restrictions on aesthetic grounds, it has not done so here.

The second case, Summum v. Duchesne City, (10th Cir., April 17, 2007), was more complicated. Here, apparently the only display already in the city's park was a 10 Commandments monument, and the city attempted to avoid Summum's request by transferring the land under the Ten Commandments display to a private party. Initially the land was transferred to the Lion's Club, and-- after questions were raised about the propriety of that transfer-- the land was re-transferred to private individuals. Also a fence was put up around the Ten Commandments with a sign saying that the land did not belong to the city. Summum requested transfer to it of a similar size piece of land in the park.

The court held that the issue here is not whether the city is endorsing the Ten Commandments in violation of the Establishment Clause, but rather whether the Ten Commandments monument remains a part of the park as a "public forum". Finding that the initial land transfer to the Lion's Club was invalid under state law because of lack of consideration and conflict of interest (the mayor was president of the Lion's Club), the court held that the land remained part of the public forum after that purported transfer. That being the case, the city needed a compelling interest to reject Summum's request to build its monument in the same public forum. It failed to demonstrate that interest.

The court then remanded the case to the trial court to determine if the second transfer of the property under the Ten Commandments to private parties was valid. After deciding that, the district court is to decide the "forum status" of the park and decide whether Summum is entitled to an injunction. (See prior related posting.)