Supreme Court Gets It Right - Religious Displays OK

In a unanimous decision, the Supreme Court today issued a landmark First Amendment ruling clearing the way for governments to accept permanent monuments of their choosing in public parks. The decision comes in the case of Pleasant Grove City v. Summum, a critical First Amendment case in which we represented the Utah city in a challenge to a display of the Ten Commandments in a city park.

This decision represents a resounding victory for government speech and gives government the right to speak for itself and the ability to communicate on behalf of its citizens. It also clears the way for government to express its views and its history through the selection of monuments – including religious monuments and displays.

The court addressed this critical question: Can a city decide which permanent, unattended monuments, if any, to install on city property? We’re delighted that the high court answered that question with an unequivocal 'yes' and upheld the important distinction between government speech and private speech.

In our briefs and in oral arguments before the court last fall, we asked the high court to overturn a decision by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit that ordered Pleasant Grove City, UT to accept and display a monument from a self-described church called Summum because the city displays a Ten Commandments monument donated by the Fraternal Order of Eagles. We contended that the Tenth Circuit made a serious error confusing government speech with private speech. Our argument was very clear: a city’s selection of which items to display in a park – like its selection of decorations for government buildings – is government speech and no private entity can claim a ‘Me too!’ right of access for its own preferred displays.

In a 9-0 decision announced by Justice Samuel Alito, the Supreme Court concluded: “In sum, we hold that the City’s decision to accept certain privately donated monuments while rejecting respondent’s is best viewed as a form of government speech. As a result, the City’s decision is not subject to the Free Speech Clause, and the Court of Appeals erred in holding otherwise. We therefore reverse.”

The high court concluded that the government has the right to speak for itself without violating the Constitution. As the court stated: “The Free Speech Clause restricts government regulation of private speech; it does not regulate government speech . . . A government entity has the right to ‘speak for itself’ . . . it is not easy to imagine how government could function if it lacked this freedom . . . A government entity may exercise this same freedom to express its views when it receives assistance from private sources for the purpose of delivering a government-controlled message.”

The Supreme Court got this one right. The government can say 'yes' or 'no' to monuments and displays - including those that are religious.