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The Summum of All Fears

Can a fringe religious sect that believes in mummifying pets and their owners force a landmark Supreme Court decision on free speech?

| Thu Nov. 13, 2008 4:00 AM EST
Reverend Fred Phelps, the infamous head of the Westboro Baptist Church in Kansas, runs a website called www.godhatesfags.com and wants to erect a monument in Casper, Wyoming's Historical Monument Plaza depicting Matthew Shepard, the gay University of Wyoming student who was murdered in 1998. The caption would read, "Matthew Shepard entered Hell October 12, 1998, in defiance of God's warning 'thou shalt not lie with mankind as with womankind; it is abomination.'"

The city of Casper has declined to host Phelps' monument. But whether the city can keep it out hinges on how the US Supreme Court decides a major free speech case involving a fringe religious sect that specializes in mummification of its adherents and, occasionally, their pets. If the court comes to the rescue of the religious group, whose cause civil libertarians would normally support, cities and towns across the country might have no choice but to showcase all manner of bizarre or hateful monuments, like the one proposed by Phelps.

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On Wednesday, the court heard oral arguments in Pleasant Grove City v. Summum, a case that is essentially forcing the justices to decide which is worse: letting the likes of Phelps fill public plazas with a parade of horrors, or allowing governments like Pleasant Grove to discriminate against religious minorities when it comes to adorning public space. The case got its start in Utah, a perennial hotbed of church/state separation litigation, and centers on a Ten Commandments monument in Pleasant Grove's Pioneer Park. The monument is one of many erected around the country by the Fraternal Order of Eagles in the 1960s and '70s with backing from Cecile B. DeMille, who was promoting his Charlton Heston movie. The monuments have generated a host of litigation in the past few years, and at least one previous Supreme Court decision.

Summum is a small religious sect founded in 1975 by the late Summum Bonum Amon Ra (who also went by Corky). The group operates out of a pyramid in Salt Lake City and is most famous for carrying on the Egyptian tradition of mummification, a practice that is also the sect's primary source of income. Over the past 15 years, the group has become a thorn in the side of Mormon Utah towns that have public displays of the Ten Commandments. Summum first sued several towns to have the monuments removed in the mid-1990s. When those efforts failed, the group sought to erect monuments of its own, displaying its "Seven Aphorisms." Summum believe that God gave Moses the Aphorisms before he handed down the Ten Commandments, but that Moses destroyed the original tablets because the people weren't ready for the received wisdom. The Aphorisms, in the shortened version, are "Psychokinesis, Correspondence, Vibration, Opposition, Rhythm, Cause and Effect, and Gender."

As you might expect, the Utah towns, including Pleasant Grove, all said no to the Aphorism monuments. In response, Summum sued them for violating the Establishment Clause, the constitutional wall between church and state that bars the government from favoring one religion over another. These would normally be slam-dunk cases because the towns so clearly discriminated against the sect. (In Pleasant Grove's case, the town elders made up new rules for monuments after Summum's request that conveniently excluded the Aphorisms.) This being Utah, where other nontraditional religious theories are mainstream, the case is anything but simple.

In 1973, the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals, which covers Utah, ruled in Anderson v. Salt Lake City that the Ten Commandments aren't a religious symbol at all but are principally secular in nature, so governments can display them at will without any fear of violating the Establishment Clause. The case was one of the first to challenge a religious display and has remained the law of the Land of Zion ever since, even though the Supreme Court has found otherwise since then. That's why Summum's original attempts to eradicate these monuments initially failed.

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