Bad news this morning for Summum, the Utah religious group famous for its mummification practices. The Supreme Court, in a unanimous decision, rejected the group’s arguments that the First Amendment required the city of Pleasant Grove to install a Summum monument displaying its “Seven Aphorisms” (Number 3: Vibration) in a public park. Summum had argued that because the city had accepted a Ten Commandments monument for the park, rejecting the Summum monument violated the group’s free speech rights. A lower federal court had agreed with the Summum, but the justices in Washington were clearly swayed by arguments that a favorable ruling for Summum would open the door to a “parade of horrors” in public space everywhere.
The Summum clearly had a sympathetic case, especially to stalwart believers in the separation of church and state. But they weren’t helped by the very real example of Reverend Fred Phelps, the infamous head of the Westboro Baptist Church in Kansas. Phelps, who runs www.godhatesfags.com, wants to erect a public monument in Casper, Wyoming 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.'” If the Summum had prevailed, Phelps might have, too. Justice Samuel Alito wrote that picking and choosing monuments for a public park was not the same thing as deciding who can and can’t speak in a public place, as Summum had argued. Alito said “the display of a permanent monument in a public park” requires a different analysis.
My home state of Utah no doubt breathed a sigh of relief at the news, as Summum has spent years tormenting city officials across the state with its proposed monuments, largely as an effort to get rid of the many Ten Commandments monuments in public parks. Today’s decision finally puts an end to the campaign, which really is too bad. As a journalist, you always have to root for the story, and this one, where a group that mummifies pets goes up against elected officials who are mostly members of a faith that once practiced polygamy, is pretty good.