Pleasant Grove City v. Summum: Monuments, Messages, and the Next Establishment Clause

Roy, Lisa Shaw | February 14, 2010

The facts of Pleasant Grove City v. Summum are well known by now: Summum, a small religious group, argued that Pleasant Grove City violated the Free Speech Clause of the First Amendment when it refused to display Summum’s monument in the city’s Pioneer Park, which already contained fifteen other monuments, including a Ten Commandments display. Summum’s unlikely claim won in the Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals, a request for rehearing was denied, and the case ultimately was heard before the U.S. Supreme Court. During the oral arguments, the Justices (along with commentators, Court watchers, and, of course, the litigants themselves) were fully aware that the Summum litigation presented a double-edged sword. If Pleasant Grove argued too vigorously the theory that the existing Ten Commandments monument constitutes the city’s own message, then it risked violating the Establishment Clause in a follow-up lawsuit based on the same facts. If, on the other hand, Pleasant Grove attributed the monument’s message to its 1971 donor, then the city would be hard-pressed to explain why Pioneer Park was not, as Summum claimed, a public forum that must be potentially open to all monuments without discrimination based on content or viewpoint. The tension pervaded the oral argument. Chief Justice Roberts opened the discussion with an observation that the city was in a double-bind. Justice Scalia guided the city’s lawyer into a discussion of Van Orden v. Perry, a 2005 case in which the Court upheld the constitutionality of a public Ten Commandments display. Justice Souter pondered the possibility of discrimination. And Summum’s lawyer frankly acknowledged that the city was “on the horns of a dilemma” facing either a Free Speech or an Establishment Clause violation. Ultimately, however, the U.S. Supreme Court unanimously decided that in selecting monuments for Pioneer Park the city was engaged in government speech; the city could therefore control the content of its message without violating the Free Speech Clause. Significantly, the Court found that the city need not formally adopt the message of an existing park monument in order for that monument to constitute government speech. The stage was set for Summum’s Establishment Clause claim, but that claim would have to wait for another day.