The Supreme Court ruled unanimously Wednesday that a small religious group cannot force a city in Utah to place a granite marker in a local park that already is home to a Ten Commandments display.
In a case involving the Salt Lake City-based Summum, the court said that governments can decide what to display in a public park without running afoul of the First Amendment.
Pleasant Grove City, Utah, rejected the group's marker, prompting a federal lawsuit that argued that a city can't allow some private donations of displays in its public park and reject others. The federal appeals court in Denver agreed.
In his opinion for the court, Justice Samuel Alito distinguished the Summum's case from efforts to prevent groups from speaking in public parks, which ordinarily would violate the First Amendment's free speech guarantee.
Alito said "the display of a permanent monument in a public park" requires a different analysis.
Because monuments in public parks help define a city's identity, "cities and other jurisdictions take some care in accepting donated monuments," he said.
CBS News chief legal analyst Andrew Cohen said that the case wasn't a close call - evident by the court's unanimous decision. The justices didn't want to open up public property to any group that wants to display a religious monument, because there's no way to know where that would end, Cohen said.
"The ruling allows local governments to make decisions and to have a little discretion in deciding which monuments can be allowed," Cohen said. "The good news for other religious groups, however, is that there are still some standards the Court has announced before which would require officials to allow some religious symbols to be put on public land - just not this one."
The Summum, a Latin term meaning the sum total of all creation, wants to erect its "Seven Aphorisms of Summum" monument in the city's Pioneer Park. The group, formed in 1975, says 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.
The Ten Commandments marker has stood in the park for nearly 50 years. It was erected by the Fraternal Order of Eagles.
The 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Denver ruled that the city violated the free speech rights of the Summum by rejecting the aphorisms.
Alito said that even long-winded speakers eventually conclude their remarks and people distributing leaflets at some point grow tired and go home. But monuments endure.
"It is hard to imagine how a public park could be opened up for the installation of permanent monuments by every person or group wishing to engage in that form of expression," he said.
In addition, Alito said, private parties do not own the monuments that governments accept for display; the governments become the owners.
He acknowledged that government ownership of monuments cannot be "used (as) a subterfuge for favoring certain private speakers over others based on viewpoint."
But he said monuments often convey multiple messages, and cited the Greco-Roman mosaic of the word "imagine" that was donated to New York's Central Park in memory of John Lennon.
Some people may "imagine" the music Lennon would have written if he had not been shot to death near the park, he said. Others may think about the words of Lennon's song of the same name that imagine "a world without religion, countries, possessions, greed or hunger," Alito said in an opinion that also included the song's lyrics.
The case is Pleasant Grove City v. Summum, 07-665.