Summum Bonum, bro

Yesterday, the Supreme Court heard a case regarding a Ten Commandments display in a public park.

Old news, right?

Well, wait until you hear about who exactly brought this case:

A crazy religious group out of Salt Lake City whose founder told all these crazy stories about divine creatures visiting him, and they have this wacky temple and follow VERY strange religious practices…

No, not the Mormons.


The Summum Pyramid in SLC.
Not to be confused with The Luxor: Mormon Edition.

WASHINGTON — The Supreme Court warily confronted a case Wednesday that mixes limits on free speech with issues of church-state separation.

The justices engaged in lively arguments over a small religious group’s efforts to place a monument in a public park that already is home to a Ten Commandments display.

The court seemed reluctant to accept the arguments put forth by the religious group known as the Summum that once a government accepts any donations for display in a public park, it must accept all.

“I mean, you have a Statue of Liberty; do we have to have a statue of despotism? Or do we have to put any president who wants to be on Mount Rushmore?” Chief Justice John Roberts asked, acknowledging his examples might go a bit far.

Yet the court also was uncomfortable with the position of Pleasant Grove City, Utah, which rejected the Summum’s request to erect a monument similar to the Ten Commandments marker that has stood in the city’s Pioneer Park since 1971.

Justice David Souter wondered how the city could accept the Ten Commandments display and then say, “‘We will not on identical terms take the Summum monument because we don’t agree with the message…’ Why isn’t that a First Amendment violation?”

The Salt Lake City-based Summum wants to erect its “Seven Aphorisms of Summum” monument in the park. The Summum, formed in 1975, say the Seven Aphorisms were given to Moses on Mount Sinai along with the Ten Commandments. Moses destroyed the tablet containing the aphorisms because he saw the people weren’t ready for them, the Summum say.

Yeah….we’re gonna need to know more about these weirdos.

The WASHINGTON POST fills us in:

Although the debate was spirited, it lacked some of the rancor of the last time the high court took up a dispute over the Ten Commandments. In 2005, a sharply divided court issued decisions forbidding the commandments from being displayed on the walls of two Kentucky courthouses but allowing their presence on a granite monument on the grounds of the Texas Capitol.

Those cases were argued under the First Amendment’s establishment clause forbidding government endorsement of religion; Summum’s lawyers chose the free-speech argument instead. The primary issue yesterday was a somewhat arcane debate over whether the city’s decision to accept the Ten Commandments monument made it “government speech,” rather than private speech, which would mean it does not have to be balanced with other viewpoints.

Beyond the legalities, much of the interest in the case has focused on the small religious sect at its center. Founded in 1975, Summum is described by its Salt Lake City lawyer, Brian Barnard, as based on “Gnostic Christianity and New Age philosophy,” along with ancient Egyptian traditions.

One of those traditions is mummification, which is practiced on people and pets. The body of Summum founder Summum Bonum “Corky” Amon Ra, who died this year, is currently undergoing the six-month process.

Currently-being-mummified Corky Ra with mummified cat. Srsly.

WIKIPEDIA tells us more about this bizarre cult of Summum:

Practice of the religion involves meditation upon the aspect of creation that is within one’s self. Summum believes that within all created things is an essence which is the spirit of the creator. The more one directs their attention to this indwelling spirit, the more one realizes its existence and moves along the lines of spiritual progression, developing “spiritual Psychokinesis”. It appears that there is no recognized deity per se in the philosophy, but rather that people are all part of the mind of the universe and that the universe collectively constitutes something great and worthy of study and meditation.

Summum produces “Nectar Publications” which are nectars containing alcohol and used in the meditation practices that Summum teaches. The nectars are made inside the Summum Pyramid and according to Summum are imbued with resonations that contain spiritual concepts. Summum has made a number of different types of nectars, each containing its own “message”. A small amount of nectar is consumed prior to meditation, and the alcohol is said to carry the resonations across the blood-brain barrier where they are released in the brain. Perception of the nectars’ effects is said to depend upon the awareness of the person using them.

Governmental authorities consider the nectars to be wine and required that Summum obtain a winery license in order to make them. Summum is Utah’s first federally bonded winery.

This is actually an awesome idea…marketing booze for religious purposes and calling it a “publication.”

You know, Summum might not be that bad.

In fact, check out the Seven Aphorisms:

1. Summum is mind, thought; the universe is a mental creation.

2. As above, so below; as below, so above.

3. Nothing rests; everything moves; everything vibrates.

4. Everything is dual; everything has an opposing point; everything has its pair of opposites; like and unlike are the same; opposites are identical in nature, but different in degree; extremes bond; all truths are but partial truths; all paradoxes may be reconciled.

5. Everything flows out and in; everything has its season; all things rise and fall; the pendulum swing expresses itself in everything; the measure of the swing to the right is the measure of the swing to the left; rhythm compensates.

6. Every cause has its effect; every effect has its cause; everything happens according to Law; Chance is just a name for Law not recognized; there are many fields of causation, but nothing escapes the Law of Destiny.

7. Gender is in everything; everything has its masculine and feminine principles; Gender manifests on all levels.

Is it just us, or do those tenets kind of…make sense???

Especially the one about vibrating. That’s, like, science.

Now, these guys exploit a loophole in biblical literature to “prove” that Moses made two deliveries from Mount Sinai: “While many people may not realize it, passages in the Bible tell the story of how Moses returned from Mount Sinai with stone tablets on two separate occasions. These passages are found in the Book of Exodus (chapters 32 – 34) and the Book of Deuteronomy (chapters 9 – 10).

The reason the story was told twice is that the Pentateuch was not actually written by Moses but assembled from a number of sources, which is why the Bible often repeats itself.

Of course, fundamentalist Christians do believe in the literal truth of the Bible, which means they have some ‘splainin’ to do when it comes to Moses’ double dip on the mountaintop…

In fact you could say that Summum’s interpretation of the Bible is no more bogus than that of many fundies…who are the ones who love those Ten Commandments displays in the first place.

“You want the Seven Aphorisms?? You can’t HANDLE the Seven Aphorisms!!”

Anyway, it’s an interesting case.

Click here for the a transcript of the oral arguments, if you’re so inclined.

And now for some informed opinions…

The SCOTUS blog notes that this case is tricky because it dwells in a nether region between various constitutional clauses. “The case of Pleasant Grove City v. Summum (07-665) seems to have much to do with “public forum,” “limited public forum,” “government speech,” “private speech,” and “viewpoint discrimination,” among other categories. But the Court’s members seemed unpersuaded that any of them is just right for this case.  The Justices weren’t even sure which part of the First Amendment is really at issue — free speech, or church-state separation…Jay Alan Sekulow, the Washington, D.C., lawyer for the Utah city, had barely begun his argument when Chief Justice John G. Roberts, Jr., told him: “You’re really just picking your poison, aren’t you?  I mean, the more you say that the monument is Government speech, to get out of the Free Speech Clause, the more it seems to me you’re walking into a trap under the Establishment Clause.”

How about the merits of the case? Dahlia Lithwick from SLATE writes: “Even [Justice Ruth Bader] Ginsburg balks at Harris’ assumption that monuments and speeches are identical for First Amendment purposes: “From time immemorial,” Ginsburg says, “public parks have been places where people can speak their minds. But I don’t know of any tradition that says people can come to the park with monuments and just put them up.” Even the most doctrine-loving justices seem to be bothered by the practical problem of city parks becoming cluttered with hate monuments, weird stuff, and, eventually, rusted-out cars. But the problems on the other side are equally glaring. Cities should not be allowed to exclude unpopular groups based only on the content of their message. The state should not be able to keep gay soldiers’ names off the Vietnam Memorial. Just ask Moses if it stopped being speech just because it was carved in stone.

Dahlia Lithwick rules. We also have the same favorite Summum Aphorism.

Calvin Massey from THE FACULTY LOUNGE blog opines, “In terms of what a city chooses to display in its park, the park functions much like a public library or art museum.  Governments are entitled to make content-based choices about what books, art works, or monuments they seek to acquire and display.  When the work has a religious element, there is a question of whether the governmental acquisition and display is a forbidden endorsement of religion.  So as a free speech matter, Pleasant Grove should win.

Agree? Disagree? Don’t care and just want to get wasted on some Summum “publications” and mummify a few cats? Tell us your thoughts in the comment section.

About Alpine McGregor
Just like you, man. I got the shotgun, you got the briefcase. All in the game, though, right?

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