Writing that they are "bound by solemn oath to follow the law, whether they agree or disagree with it," the justices said in a signed statement that the state Supreme Court must abide by a federal court order mandating the removal of the 5,280-pound monument of the Ten Commandments that Moore had installed one night in 2001.
A federal judge had ordered Moore to have the monument removed by midnight Wednesday, saying the granite block, known as "Roy's Rock," violated the separation of church and state.
The associate justices, who acted before Moore arrived for work yesterday, ordered their building's manager to erect a partition to screen the monument from public view in the lobby. But when Moore arrived, according to people who had been in contact with him yesterday, he ordered the manager to remove the partition and threatened to jail the other justices.
Soon after, state Attorney General Bill Pryor announced that he was siding with the associate justices and that the monument must be removed from public view.
But it was not certain how or when that would be accomplished. Under the federal court order, the monument can remain in the building as long as it is not in public view. But moving it to a space not accessible to the public may be troublesome. Experts have said the monument's 5,200 pounds is too heavy for the building's elevator and even some flooring.
Moore's supporters remain defiant.
"We're ready to lay down our lives," said Rusty Thomas, a minister from Waco, Texas. Thomas, along with many other of Moore's supporters, denounced the action by the other judges yesterday and called them "Judases."
Moore's monument has been a magnet for Christian activists. As the clock struck midnight, the crowd that had assembled in front of the courthouse sang "God Bless America." The muggy plaza was clogged with dozens of young girls wearing Jesus T-shirts, white people, black people, the young, the old, the in between, a man who had walked from Texas dressed in a monk's frock and another who had driven from San Diego in a red truck with a sign that said "Shame on America."
On Wednesday, some of Moore's supporters were arrested, including Karen Kennedy, 66, who was handcuffed in her wheelchair. By midnight, she was back, a hero.
"Let's hear it for this woman," yelled the Rev. Pat Mahoney, director of the Christian Defense Coalition.
"That's right," Kennedy said from the courthouse steps. "I was cuffed for God."
On Wednesday, Moore lost a last-ditch appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court, hurtling him head-on into a conflict with a federal judge who has threatened to make him pay $5,000 for every day that the Ten Commandments remain in public view.
U.S. District Judge Myron H. Thompson, who has presided over this case brought by several civil liberties groups, ruled nine months ago that placing a 4-foot-tall stone block of the Ten Commandments in the court's lobby was "nothing less than an obtrusive year-round religious display."
"The only way to miss the religious or nonsecular appearance of the monument would be to walk through the Alabama State Judicial Building with one's eyes closed," he wrote.
Thompson is expected to call a hearing to decide the next course of action.
Legal experts say Moore's views are on the fringe.
"This is not a close case," said Martin Redish, a Northwestern University law professor. "This is a situation where both on its face and from the context, it's quite clear that the Ten Commandments are being used as a clear message of governmental support for a religious institution."
Moses and the Ten Commandments appear on a frieze at the U.S. Supreme Court as part of a display of historical law figures. The courts have consistently ruled that it is acceptable to show the Ten Commandments if they are part of a larger historical display. But Moore refused to place any other exhibits alongside his Ten Commandments.
Moore is one of the most popular politicians in the state, rising from obscurity 10 years ago after he hung a homemade rosewood plaque of the Ten Commandments in his county courtroom. He believes that U.S. laws get their authority from the Bible, and he has even compared himself to Moses and Daniel.