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WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The U.S. Supreme Court appeared divided on Wednesday on whether a city violated a religious group's free-speech rights by refusing to put its monument in a public park near a similar Ten Commandments display.
Some of the court's conservative justices seemed concerned a ruling for the religious group would mean public parks across the nation would be forced to allow privately donated monuments that express a different view from those already on display.
"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 Mt. Rushmore?" Chief Justice John Roberts asked.
But some liberal justices sounded sympathetic to the arguments by the religious group's lawyer that it violated the constitutional right to free speech for a city to allow one message on public property while excluding another message.
Justice John Paul Stevens asked whether it would be permissible for a city to say that it will only allow in a park monuments that conveyed messages the city agreed with.
The Summun religious group, founded in Salt Lake City in 1975, sought to erect a monument to the tenets of its faith, called the "Seven Aphorisms," in a park where there are other monuments, including one dedicated to the Ten Commandments.
Pleasant Grove City in Utah rejected the request, citing its requirement that park displays be related to its history or be donated by groups with longtime community ties, like the Fraternal Order of Eagles that gave the Ten Commandments monument in 1971.
During the arguments, the Supreme Court returned to an issue it last addressed in 2005 when it ruled that a Ten Commandments monument can be displayed on a state Capitol grounds that also has numerous other monuments and statues.
Jay Sekulow, the lawyer representing the city, argued that a U.S. appeals court erred when it ruled the Constitution's free-speech guarantee means Pleasant Grove City must accept a private group's monument.
Justice Department lawyer Daryl Joseffer supported the city, saying the government can select the content and viewpoints of monuments on the National Mall in Washington and in other public parks across the country.
"The Vietnam Veterans Memorial did not open us up to a Viet Cong memorial. When the Martin Luther King Memorial is completed on the Mall, it will not have to be offset by a monument to the man who shot Dr. King," he said.
Pamela Harris, the attorney representing the religious group, said the city cannot allow the Ten Commandments display while denying Summum access for a display about the tenets of its faith.
"That's a violation of the core free-speech principle that the government may not favor one message over another in a public forum," she said.
A ruling in the case is expected before June.
Editing by Eric Beech