SummumIf you’ve never heard of the Summum religion, don’t feel too bad. It’s a new religion, founded in the 1970s by a man who now calls himself Summum Bonum Amen Ra (“Corky” to his friends). Adherents, of whom there are several hundred worldwide, believe that the universe was created ex nihilo by SUMMUM, the manifestation of divine potential (the capitalization is important). They meditate on aspects of creation, chemically enhancing the experience using alcoholic “nectars” manufactured at Summum’s main temple. The temple, incidentally, is a miniature replica of the Great Pyramid of Giza located in Salt Lake City, Utah. In keeping with this Egyptian theme, Summum also promotes a modern form of mummification. (The “thanatogeneticists” who carry out the process will also preserve dearly departed pets of all sizes for a reasonable fee.)

But this post isn’t just about Summum. It’s about the First Amendment.

For more than a decade, Summum has been trying to place monuments to its Seven Aphorisms alongside Ten Commandments monuments in parks and other public grounds throughout Utah. Unsurprisingly, the cities in question have rejected the Aphorism monuments. The two most recent cases involve rejections by the cities of Duchesne and Pleasant Grove. Duchesne argued that it had transferred the small plot of land that its privately donated Ten Commandments monument sat on to private owners, taking it out of the public forum. Pleasant Grove argued that its privately donated Ten Commandments monument was part of a historical display celebrating the town’s history. In April of 2007 the Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals found that in both cases the city parks were public forums, and that the cities had not demonstrated a sufficiently compelling interest in prohibiting further monuments. (Summum v. Duchesne City, 482 F.3d 1263 (10th Cir. 2007); Summum v. Pleasant Grove City, 483 F.3d 1044 (10th Cir. 2007)).

The cities petitioned for en banc review, and earlier this week the Tenth Circuit denied the petition. Two judges wrote dissenting opinions, arguing that the local governments should be allowed to make “reasonable, content-based judgments” about monuments allowed in their parks. The judges do not specify just what sort of content-based judgments they would find reasonable, but Summum’s history before the Tenth Circuit can give us a pretty strong indication. Opponents of the Seven Aphorism monuments have jumped through a strange set of hoops trying to keep out the Summum religious message while retaining the Christian religious message. The most obvious example is in Duchesne, which transferred title to the land under the monument at least twice in an effort to remove it from the “park.” It doesn’t seem like a stretch to say that these opponents, including the dissenting judges, would consider a reasonable judgment to be one that includes the content of their favored religion(s) while excluding the content of a disfavored religion. And no matter how the opponents try to spin things, this arrangement is not justifiable.

If the Ten Commandments monuments are considered government speech (as dissenting Judge McConnell argues they should be), the cities will run afoul of the Establishment Clause. Consider the Lemon test: as key tenets of the Christian religion, the Ten Commandments monuments are not likely to have a legitimate secular purpose. Even if the city can prove such a purpose the monuments still have the primary effect of advancing a religion. And even if that is not the primary effect, the fact that government speech comprises the Ten Commandments would make it nearly impossible not to find “excessive government entanglement” with religion. Moreover, a government policy barring other religions” tenets from being expressed in the same way would have the primary effect of inhibiting religion – also unacceptable under Lemon. (See McCreary County v. ACLU of Kentucky, 545 U.S. 844 (2005) for a similar take on Ten Commandments displays in courthouses by the Supreme Court.)

If on the other hand the display of Ten Commandments monuments from private donors creates a public forum for private speech (as the Tenth Circuit held in the Summum cases), the cities would need to justify permitting speech by certain favored groups and prohibiting speech by other disfavored groups. In the current cases as in others (including other actions brought by Summum), the court simply has not found a compelling state interest in making this narrowly tailored distinction.
There is a lesson to be learned from the Summum cases: ultimately individuals have to decide for themselves whether they want to live their lives according to the Ten Commandments, or the Seven Aphorisms, or the Noble Eightfold Path, or the Five Pillars, or any other enumerated list of religious tenets. They must all compete in the marketplace of ideas. The government should treat the beliefs of Summum no differently from Christianity or any other more mainstream religion. It should not be a tool to aid in any faith’s proselytizing efforts.

Further Reading:

  • Full text of the Aug. 24 10th Circuit Order, with April 17 opinions
  • The Seven Aphorisms of Summum
  • Van Orden v. Perry, 545 U.S. 677 (2005)
  • McCreary County v. ACLU of Kentucky, 545 U.S. 844 (2005)
  • Summum v. Pleasant Grove City, 483 F.3d 1044 (10th Cir. 2007)
  • Summum v. Duchesne City, 482 F.3d 1263 (10th Cir. 2007)
  • Summum v. City of Ogden, 297 F.3d 995 (10th Cir. 2002)
  • Summum v. Callaghan, 130 F.3d 906 (10th Cir. 1997)


3 Comments so far

  1. Neal Hoffman on August 31, 2007 9:37 am

    Is Summum actually considered a “mainstream religion?” Does it have tax-exempt status?

  2. Jeremy on August 31, 2007 1:58 pm

    According to their website, Summum is “a 501(c)(3) and 170(b)(1)(A)(i) tax exempt organization.” I don’t pretend to know anything about church taxation, but I looked them up and those two sections appear to be relevant.

    I wouldn’t claim that Summum is anywhere near mainstream by any criteria, though. It has something less than .00001% of the Earth’s population as members, after all. (Even the Yazidis have that beat with their meager .005%.)

  3. Corky Ra on September 14, 2007 4:01 pm


    Wikipedia; “Jeremy,

    I like your fare article on Summum. Just a couple of things, your statements of: “Adherents, of whom there are several hundred worldwide, Summum teaches that the universe was created ex nihilo by SUMMUM, the manifestation subjective of Nothingness with the automatic opposite all Possibilities, is Summum’s teachings. Your statement are incorrect, Summum now has over 250,000 members world wide”;

    It seems as if some of those messengers of disinformation have changed our membership from 250,000 to over 200 hundred. Yes, we do have over 200 members, although this is the form of disinformation presented by those who believe only their Christian message should be heard and not our Christian message.

    This seems as if it is true we have over 200 members, but to misinforms the public about our religion is what we have become use to over the many years, by some of the so-called pious religious right.

    Summum is a Christian Church: “Summum states that its teachings are the same as the teachings of Gnostic Christianity and maintains that knowledge does not come from things such as the intellect or obedience or faith, but from revelatory experience. The Aphorisms of Summum are followed by the Hermetic Jews in the Kabala and have been published as long as the Old Testament. All Summum asks is to allow the public to hear the complete story rather than all the disinformation

    Corky Ra

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