An uppity judge or modern Moses? Defiance: By insisting the Ten Commandments remain on his courtroom wall, an Alabama judge has been propelled into the firmament of religious conservatives.


MONTGOMERY, Ala. -- In Judge Roy Moore's courtroom, two wooden plaques inscribed with the Ten Commandments hang on the wall behind him. That's where they'll stay, Moore vows -- despite a state judge's ruling that the display is unconstitutional and the Ten Commandments must come down.

The controversy has moved beyond Moore's Etowah County courtroom and the two wooden plaques he carved himself.

Some religious conservatives and their leaders have rallied to Moore's cause. Here, they say, is the government trying to prevent a man from acknowledging his God -- another in a 35-year-long string of judicial affronts to religion.

First on their list is the Supreme Court's 1962 restriction on school prayer. Then the justices pushed nativity scenes off town squares. Today, some Christian leaders say, a court is threatening Moore's constitutionally protected right to call on his God for guidance and support.

But Moore's critics, led by the American Civil Liberties Union of Alabama, say the dispute is about separation of church and state. They say that in displaying the commandments and holding prayers in his courtroom, Moore is a government official telling people when, where and how to pray.

The judge's opponents pose this hypothetical situation: Would a Muslim judge who wanted to display a portion of the Koran and pray to Mecca be tolerated? Not likely, they say.

Moore's supporters are not swayed by the legal precedents against religious symbols in government buildings. And last weekend, his backers rallied in Montgomery on his behalf.

"As Americans, as Christians and as patriots, we must say to the courts, to the liberal media and to the ACLU, 'You have gone this far and no further,' " Ralph Reed, head of the Christian Coalition, told a cheering crowd of about 5,000 who gathered at the Save the Commandments Rally.

"Without God, there is no freedom," thundered former Republican presidential candidate Alan L. Keyes of Maryland. "Without faith, there is no freedom."

The event was part politics and part religious revival. The speakers likened their cause to the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.'s struggle for civil rights. They invoked the names of the Founding Fathers. The cheering spectators carried small American flags. Some stood as if in church, raising their arms in the air and gently waving them back and forth.

"I thank God for this man who has taken a stand," said Chrys Holley, who had traveled from Milton, Fla., to show her support for Moore. "A nation that forgets God is going downhill, kiddo."

But Montgomery Circuit Judge Charles Price, who ruled against Moore, went out of his way to say he doesn't intend anyone to forget God. He even suggested that the commandments could stay if they were moved and included in a more secular, historical display of codes of laws.

"The Ten Commandments are not in peril," Price wrote in his February decision. "They are neither stained, tarnished nor thrashed. They may be displayed in every church, synagogue, temple, mosque, home and storefront. They may be displayed in cars, on lawns and in corporate boardrooms. Where this precious gift cannot and should not be displayed as an obvious religious text or to promote religion is on government property (particularly in a courtroom)."

That language did not appease Moore or his supporters. "We have a war against religion and a war against religious people going on in America today," Reed said.

If there's a war, Alabama's Gov. Fob James wants to fight. He promises to call out the National Guard should anyone try to remove the commandments from Moore's courtroom.

"Never doubt my resolve," he called out to the crowd at the rally.

The Republican governor was standing on the steps of Alabama's cream-colored state Capitol, which looks out over downtown Montgomery.

Before that columned facade, Jefferson Davis was sworn in as the first president of the Confederacy, with an inaugural band playing an early arrangement of "Dixie." On those steps in 1965, King addressed a crowd of 25,000 at the end of his Selma-to-Montgomery march for black voting rights. But the attention that Moore has drawn to the capital makes some Alabamians weary.

"I think this is largely about political power and playing to populist opinion for political purposes rather than for reasons of faith," said the Rev. Richard Deibert, co-pastor of Montgomery's Immanuel Presbyterian Church.

A majority of state residents identify themselves as Christians, and fundamentalist groups flourish throughout the state, Deibert said. "Opportunism is the word I would use here. Fob James just guaranteed his re-election."

And some here say the controversy reinforces stereotypes about the conservative South. The image of James sending soldiers to block a courthouse door, they say, evokes images of segregationist Gov. George C. Wallace in the 1960s blocking a ** schoolhouse door to bar integration.

"It's very upsetting to me," said Olivia Turner, executive director of the ACLU of Alabama, who was referring to more than the constitutional issues. "This is not what the state needs.

"We have a hard time attracting industry, retaining industry," Turner said. "And now we have a governor who says he'll call out the National Guard to protect a state court judge who says he's going to flagrantly disobey an order of the court.

"Last year it was the chain gangs," she said, referring to the state's revival of shackled prison work crews. "Now this."

"This" began in 1992, when Moore, a West Point graduate and Vietnam veteran, was named a judge in the Circuit Court of Etowah County, in northeastern Alabama. To decorate his courtroom he brought his Ten Commandments plaques from home.

In 1995, the ACLU backed a lawsuit that charged Moore's display of the commandments and his courtroom prayers violated the constitutions of the United States and of Alabama. Moore, 50, countered that the commandments were merely an acknowledgment of God, not the promotion of a religion.

In November, Price ruled the prayers were unconstitutional but said the plaques could remain. The ACLU asked him to reconsider, and in February, Price visited Moore's courtroom.

A few days later came his decision. The display, Price said in reversing himself, was "purely religious" and had to come down.

Moore has appealed to the Alabama Supreme Court, which has allowed the commandments to remain on the courtroom wall until the case is decided.

Deibert, the minister, says he wishes that Moore and his backers could understand that "separation of church and state is for the sake of the faith, not to its detriment. When the government cannot interfere with faith, faith flourishes."

Meanwhile, Moore and James have appeared on national radio and television shows, arguing that hanging the Ten Commandments in the courtroom is consistent with the beliefs of the Founding Fathers, who referred to "the Creator" at the start of the Declaration of Independence.

"The ACLU began this controversy," Moore told his supporters from the state Capitol steps. "And with God's help, we will finish it."

Pub Date: 4/17/97

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