Where does God belong and who gets to decide? That sums up the debate underlying two new rulings by the United States Supreme Court and it seems to be a split decision.
In one case, the court ruled unanimously that authorities in Pleasant Grove, Utah, could maintain a Ten Commandments monument in Pioneer Park while rejecting a monument to the “7 Aphorisms” offered by a religious group called Summum. Typically, the claim is that demonstrating preference for one religious tradition over others violates the Constitution’s “establishment clause”. But in this case, the group which made the offer sued on the basis that the city council’s rejection of their offer constituted an infringement on free speech.
The leaders of Summum failed to recognize that governments make decisions about what to include and what to exclude from public parks all the time. But the fact that Summum lost does not mean that the city’s leaders made good public policy when they kept the Ten Commandments and rejected the Aphorisms.
In fact, the leaders of both Summum and the city council are guilty of a similar kind of religious arrogance, which is totally inappropriate. And were it not for the arrogance of the former, it is highly doubtful that the members of the court would have all reached a unanimous decision in favor of the latter.
The members of Summum insisted that they had the right to say what they wanted, where they wanted and how they wanted. Nobody has that right, which is why they deserved to loose. But the insensitivity of the city council is just as bad.
What makes politicians in Pleasant Grove, or anywhere else, think they have the right to allow the placement of some religious monuments in public, while choosing to reject others? Public officials engaging in that kind of choice-making process violate the constitution and threatens our religious freedom. And it’s troubling that because of the premise of those who brought the suit, the city council’s behavior went unchallenged by the court in this case.
Even more disturbing is the mocking tone of Justice Antonin Scalia’s words in writing about the Court’s decision. He said, “Pleasant Grove need not worry about breaching the ‘so-called’ wall of separation between church and state.” Is he kidding? And that’s a question coming from me, who believes that there ought to be room for religious displays in public places. It is not the job of government to assure that we live in a nation with a God-free or religion-free public square. In fact, it’s a dangerous practice to assure anybody’s freedom by curtailing that of others.
It is just as dangerous when government becomes the arbiter of which expressions of God or religion are allowed and which are not. So once the Ten Commandments are in, then other commandments, aphorisms, and sayings must be welcomed as well.
Anything short of a position which welcomes all, if it welcomes any, must fall. And who better than Mormons, who have been persecuted for generations, should know that? For a government comprised largely of those who have experienced some of the ugliest religious bigotry in our nation’s history to play casually with the marriage of religion and state power is simply amazing and simply unacceptable.
Having won their case, as they should have, the city council in Pleasant Grove should now either loose the Ten Commandments from Pioneer Park, or find some way to include Summum’s 7 Aphorisms — not because they endorse them equally, and not because they have no right to limit speech in public places, but because when it comes to people’s beliefs, doing otherwise threatens all of us.
By saying ‘yes’ to Summum, they are saying ‘no’ to precisely the kind of religious arrogance which harmed the Latter -day Saints. It’s the kind of religious arrogance to which the court also said no this week when it refused to hear a case from New Jersey regarding a high school football coach who wanted to lead his team in prayer.
Coach Marcus Borden liked to take a knee with his East Brunswick, N.J. team before games. The Third U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, however, ruled that it was illegal for him to do so and the Supreme Court affirmed their decision by refusing to hear a further appeal. Thank God. And I mean that.
I believe that God and prayer are more than window dressing, and I believe that those who lead people in their relationships with either assume a very significant position of authority in the lives of those they lead. That is why coaches, or any other public officials should not freely assume such a role, especially over those whom they already have authority for other reasons.
Like the case in Utah, this is about the obligation of those in positions of power to exercise great caution with the power they have been granted, and great sensitivity over those whom they have it. Like the case in Pioneer Park, the failure on Coach Borden’s part is not his appreciation of the potentially unifying and focusing power of prayer, about which I think he is correct.
The coach’s failure lies in not considering those who don’t share his views. And when it comes to public religion, the first rule must always be, as it is in medicine, do no harm. About that, history shows us, there should be no debate.