Back to News & Commentary

Why the Gays Should Care about the Ten Commandments (or, Everything You Ever Wanted to Know about the Summums, but were Afraid to Ask)

Choire Sicha,
New York Observer
Share This Page
June 16, 2008

It’s 60 years ago all over again; the Supreme Court is entertaining a case on the Ten Commandments. But this time, it’s funner!

The 10th Circuit Court found in April of last year that a town in Utah must accept and display (on public land that was “ceded to a private party”) a donation by a non-profit religious group, because that land already displays a donated Ten Commandments, and because the Court believed a city park is a public forum. (As well, that the Ten Commandments represented “the private speech of the original donor”—not government speech.)

This is in conflict with other circuit courts and so here we go, with Pleasant Grove City v. Summum: The Supreme Court extended the 45-day deadline for the city of Pleasant Grove to file their brief on the merits until today, June 16. The Summums have a bit longer.

At question before the Supreme Court—rather unbelievably—is even whether a municipal park is actually a public forum.

The Johnny Appleseeds of these Ten Commandments have ended up in Court again and again. In Nebraska, and in Texas, they have been the subject of conflicting rulings. The Texas case (Van Orden v. Perry) ended up in the Supreme Court, along with McCreary County v. ACLU of Kentucky.Both cases considered the context of the Commandments display—and because of that, had opposite outcomes.

So, our friends the Summums. If Summum were based in California or New York, we’d probably think the outfit was a practical joke, cooked up to challenge the (equally wacky-seeming) holdings of most religions. (“So wait, Father—then you eat the body of Christ?”) But these strangest of our bedfellows seem kind of sweet.

The Summums, who organized themselves into a small religion in 1975, seem to believe that the United States was founded by Freemason-Kabbalists; they are dualists,big fans of gender; also they believe that the Jews couldn’t understand what Moses was saying with his laws from God so then he went away and made some easy “Ten Commandment” things so they could get it. (Well it wasn’t a very literate or conceptually-minded time.) That is because, they say, the first things Moses came down the mountain with were kind of tricky and esoteric!

The Summums are into meditation and believe in the Big Bang. Also, they are really into mummification, which is awesome. They have what they call Thanatogeneticists—Did Nathaniel West borrow some ideas for “Miss Lonelyhearts” from some proto-Summums?—standing by who are even ready to mummify your pets.

What does this have to do with the gays? (One must always ask that for the gays, who have become more and more single-issue in their legal politics. If it’s not gay marriage, does a gay care?)

For one thing, dear gays, control over one’s body and therefore sex life has much to do with the separation of religion from law. (Surely we all remember sodomy laws?) It’s perfectly fine, if a little strange, for religions to forbid activities and arrangements between their people. That’s a consensual contract between believer and church. But: not so much okay for the government to do so.

The insertion of the Ten Commandments by Christian believers into public places—and public places are de facto not-Christian places, whether or not they are “public fora”—suggest clearly that they’d like to have their rules have a relation to public conduct. (Like any billboard, really! Altria wants you to eat Kraft Mac ‘N’ Cheese; these Christians want you to remember the Sabbath and keep it holy.)

This promotion of their ten rules suggests that they’d like them to perhaps have the force of social law. This might be of concern to believer and unbeliever, gay and straight alike! The everyday act of adultery, after all—that’s Commandment 7 for the Jews and the Anglicans but Commandment 6 for the Roman Catholics—is still punishable by a prison sentence in at least one state.