Inside Summum: Free Speech and Mummies

In that Greek temple of justice Americans call the Supreme Court, Summum, a religion founded 33 years ago and practiced by a handful of people, rose to national prominence last week, but its adherents worship in another classical structure -- a copper-plated pyramid off Interstate 15 in Salt Lake City.

The court heard oral arguments in a First Amendment case that asked whether Summum -- a religion that practices mummification, believes in psychokinesis and received its founding revelation from space aliens -- could erect a monument listing its Seven Aphorisms alongside the Ten Commandments in a Utah public park.

Those aphorisms include such principles as "moving things with your mind" and "everything vibrates."

At oral arguments last week, the justices tried to wade through the gray areas in some of the First Amendment's most important clauses. The Summum case is not about religious freedom per se but about free speech. Does the Pleasant Grove City Council, which controls the park, have to give every religion a monument that wants one? When the council denied Summum but allowed for the Ten Commandments, was the city violating the Establishment Clause that bans government endorsements of any one religion?

"We just hope wisdom will prevail and the justices will make the right decision," said Su Menu, Summum's president. "In the meantime, we're going to be meditating a lot."

Menu, whose full legal name is Summum Bonum Neffer Menu, has been a member of the sect since 1976, one year after the religion was founded by the late Summum Bonum Amon Ra (better known as Corky), a self-described "administrative manager for a large supply company in Salt Lake City" who says he was visited one day after work by extraterrestrials.

Summum gets its name from the Latin word meaning "the sum total of all creation" and according to Menu, a 58-year-old piano teacher who professionally goes by the name Sue Parsons, the religion has no overarching doctrine, or single supreme being.

Menu said the sect doesn't keep records on its total membership, but said there were usually around 10 people who attended twice weekly meetings at the pyramid. Since the case went to the Supreme Court, Summum has seen a boost in traffic to its Web site, its main means of disseminating information about the faith, and from which it sells books written by Ra and other items, including "merh," a sex lubricant purportedly made through interpreting ancient Egyptian hieroglyphs.

The pyramid, a 27-foot tall structure covered with copper plate is the faith's headquarters and contains the mummified remains of Corky Ra, born Claude Rex Nowell, who first brought suit against Pleasant Grove City over the monument in 2003 and died in January at 63.

Though Ra is the only person the sect has mummified, Summum has preserved several pets, including Menu's poodle, many of which are displayed in the pyramid.

Menu said thousands of people have contacted Summum for information about being mummified.

At oral arguments last Wednesday, the justices posed a range of hypothetical questions to figure out how free speech should be exercised both by cities and individuals.

"You have a Statute of Liberty. Do we have to have a statue of despotism?" asked Chief Justice John Roberts. "Or do we have to put up any president who wants to be on Mount Rushmore?"

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