Selling Land and Religion

73 Pages Posted: 3 Feb 2013

See all articles by Eang L. Ngov

Eang L. Ngov

University of Oklahoma College of Law

Date Written: November 1, 2012


Thousands of religious monuments have been donated to cities and towns. Under Pleasant Grove City v. Summum, local, state, and federal governments now have greater freedom to accept religious monuments, symbols, and objects donated to them for permanent display in public spaces without violating the Free Speech Clause. Now that governments may embrace religious monuments and symbols as their own speech, the obvious question arises whether governments violate the Establishment Clause by permanently displaying a religiously significant object.

Fearing an Establishment Clause violation, some governmental bodies have privatized religious objects and the land beneath them by selling or transferring the objects and land to private parties. Some transactions have included restrictive covenants that require the buyer to maintain the religious object or reversionary clauses that allow the government to reclaim the land. Others have sold or transferred the religious object without soliciting bids from other buyers.

This article provides an in-depth analysis of five cases in which governmental bodies resorted to privatizing public land to avoid violating the Establishment Clause. Drawing from Establishment Clause jurisprudence involving religious displays, this article utilizes the Lemon and Endorsement tests as analytical tools for resolving the constitutionality of land dispositions involving religious displays.

This article considers the purported secular government purposes for selling or transferring land to private parties. The government has sought to justify these land dispositions as a means to provide memorials that honor veterans or promote civic-mindedness, to preserve the religious object in order to avoid showing disrespect to religion, and to avoid violating the Establishment Clause. I argue that these purported government purposes are secondary to a religious interest because there are other alternatives to achieve the government’s purposes.

I also examine the effects of these land dispositions on the reasonable observer. The Herculean efforts exerted by the government to save the religious monument send a message of government endorsement of religion. Restrictive covenants that require the private owner to maintain the religious monument and reversionary clauses that allow the government to reclaim the monument and underlying land perpetuate state action and excessively entangle the government. I conclude that the best measure to avoid the Establishment Clause is to simply remove the religious object. Removing the religious object will protect the dilution of sacred religious symbols through their secularization and will provide greater inclusiveness in public spaces for religious minorities and nonbelievers.

Keywords: Establishment Clause, endorsement, Lemon test, land, monument, privatization, Trunk, secular purpose, reasonable observer, symbol, object, cross, Ten Commandments, Van Orden, Salazar, Buono, Pleasant Grove City, Summum, restrictive covenant, reversionary clause, Marshfield, Mercier, Eagles

JEL Classification: H70, H82, K10, K30, K19

Suggested Citation

Ngov, Eang L., Selling Land and Religion (November 1, 2012). Kansas Law Review, Vol. 61, No. 1, 2012, Available at SSRN:

Eang L. Ngov (Contact Author)

University of Oklahoma College of Law ( email )

300 W Timberdell Rd
Norman, OK 73019

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