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?"

Justice John Paul Stevens asked whether calling something "government speech" meant a monument could be rejected simply because you dislike its message.

The court has yet to pass down a single sweeping ruling that applies to all religious monuments in public spaces. In 1980, displays of the Ten Commandments were banned from public schools. In 2005, the court allowed a 57-year-old Ten Commandments monument to remain on the grounds of the Texas statehouse but that same year ordered the removal of a the Decalogue from the walls of two Tennessee county courthouses.

The Summum case asks the Court to draw a distinct line on religious monuments in public spaces, which it has been reluctant to do in the past.

"There is a fundamental difference between opening up a forum, taking acres of a park and saying everybody gets to go in," said Jay Sekulow, head of the American Center for Law and Justice, which is representing the city, "and another situation where the government is clearly controlling it not for a subversive reason."

Sekulow told ABC that Summum's beliefs "did not factor into the city's decision to not grant a permit for the monument. They didn't know anything about Summum. They didn't know about the Seven Aphorisms. They just knew that monument had nothing to do with the history of the park."

The Court is not expected to reach a decision until the spring, but Menu said either way they'll continue to fight for the right to free speech and free exercise of religion.

In the pyramid, adherents also brew an alcoholic beverage they call "nectar," or "liquid knowledge," consumed before meditation sessions.

Menu said she knows some of the religion's practices may seem strange, but that all religions do things that seem weird to outsiders.

"We're always being slammed with the label 'New Age,' and being called a 'New Age group.' What does that even mean?" Menu said. "We're not weirdos worshiping mummies, like some people have suggested. We're normal people trying to understand the universe and taking a spiritual journey."

As for the aliens who visited Ra in the 1970s, Menu said many religions believe in similar visitations.

Menu said Summum wasn't just about "mumbo jumbo" but was based on the natural principles and feelings of inclusiveness that underpin many of the world's faiths.

"We believe all religions speak to the people who practice them so long as they feel comfortable doing that. Our philosophy is pure and simple. It is nature's law. Everyone wants to make things complex. All religions are trying to improve people's spiritual lives. They are all saying the same thing."