WASHINGTON – The Supreme Court ruled Wednesday that placing monuments in public parks is a form of government speech – meaning the government does not have to accept a monument from a religious group,even in a park with other monuments,including the Ten Commandments.
The court's unanimous opinion,written by Justice Samuel A. Alito,stated that privately funded monuments that are publicly displayed are no different,legally,than those financed by the government.
“A government entity ‘is entitled to say what it wishes,' and to select the views that it wants to express,” Alito wrote. “It may exercise this same freedom when it receives private assistance for the purpose of delivering a government-controlled message.”
The case,Pleasant Grove v. Summum,deals with a mostly Mormon community south of Salt Lake City. Pleasant Grove's Pioneer Park features several monuments,including one of the Ten Commandments.
However,the city denied two requests from a Summum,a Gnostic Christian group,to erect a monument displaying the religion's Seven Aphorisms.
Initially,Summum lost in court but won on appeal. The 10th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that privately donated monuments do not reflect the views of the government and that parks are traditional public forums,meaning the city had to display the monument.
The Supreme Court reversed that decision,saying the scarcity of space in public parks means that governments may be selective in their choice of monuments.
“A government entity may create a forum that is limited to use by certain groups or dedicated solely to the discussion of certain subjects,” Alito wrote. “In such a forum,a government entity may impose restrictions on speech that are reasonable and viewpoint-neutral.”
The case was unusual because Summum appealed under the First Amendment's free speech clause,not under the religious freedom clause.
The court also heard arguments concerning aggravated identity theft. Ignacio Carlos Flores-Figueroa purchased forged identification documents,including a Social Security card with a number that belonged to someone else. According to Flores-Figueroa,he made up the numbers and did not know they were assigned to others.
For that,Flores-Figueroa had two years tacked onto his sentence by an Illinois court. Arguments centered on the meaning and placement of the word “knowingly” in the identity theft statute.
Kevin R. Russell,attorney for Flores-Figueroa,likened his client's predicament to a robber who accidentally sets the house he is robbing on fire. While the felon could be punished for robbery,he could not also be punished for arson.
“You have the classic aggravated identity thief who breaks into a bank account using a means of identification he knows belongs to somebody else,” Russell said. “It's exactly the same sentence,under the government's view,as somebody like Flores-Figueroa who just unknowingly used a number in order to get a job.”
Toby Heytens,assistant to the solicitor general,argued that if the numbers had been fictitious,the extra two-year sentence would not be applicable.
“You get an extra two years if it just so happens that the number you picked out of the air belonged to somebody else,” Justice John Paul Stevens said.
Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg called the statute “unusually ambiguous,” asking why Congress would want to draw such a line. While Heytens compared the case to homicide,Ginsburg said that whether the homicide was intentional or accidental,the person is just as dead; breaking into a person's bank account causes very different damage than using identification information on a Social Security card.
In another case,the court heard arguments concerning a congressional apology for U.S. officials' role in the overthrow of the Kingdom of Hawaii in 1893. The case raised the question of whether the apology requires the Hawaiian government to reach a settlement with Native Hawaiians before selling state land.
The court is expected to rule in the cases by June.