WASHINGTON - It has been ironic to see supporters of Alabama Chief Justice Roy Moore pay homage to the 5,280-pound Ten Commandments monument that he installed in the middle of the night in the state's Supreme Court building.
Justice Moore was suspended with pay Aug. 22 for refusing to comply with an order from the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals to remove the big Decalogue. This brought hundreds of religious zealots to Montgomery, Ala., to defend "Roy's Rock," followed by hundreds of news-hungry journalists.
Waves of the faithful came to the courthouse, knelt and even prostrated themselves on the ground to pray for the monument to be retained, but it was removed Wednesday.
The irony is this: The more the protesters prayed, knelt and prostrated themselves before Justice Moore's imposing rock, the more they undercut the case for keeping it on display on public property.
Yes, legal scholars acknowledge there is a case to be made for keeping a religious symbol on display on public property, although it probably is not the case that Justice Moore wants to make.
The Supreme Court has never ruled on the issue, but a pattern has emerged from the patchwork of lower court decisions: A religious display can survive challenges if it has a "secular purpose" that a reasonable observer would not view as endorsing religion in its "primary effect."
In other words, you can display a religious symbol as long as people are not likely to view it as particularly religious. An often-cited example is the U.S. Supreme Court's building on which a frieze depicts Moses among other historical lawgivers holding up two tablets on the East Portico. The tablets, significantly, are blank, and even if they weren't, they are too high to be read easily.
The entrance door to the building's courtroom also has two tablets with the Roman numerals I through X on them, but no words.
The Spirit of Justice statue in the U.S. Department of Justice Building also has two blank tablets at its feet. The statue also has an exposed female breast. This, not the tablets, is the widely reported reason why Attorney General John Ashcroft's office spent several thousand public dollars to shroud the statue from public view.
But Judge Myron Thompson of U.S. District Court ordered the removal of Justice Moore's monument precisely because it "leaves no room for ambiguity about its religious appearance."
Among other features, he cited its "ineffable but still overwhelming sacred aura." Visitors and court employees "found the monument to be an appropriate and even compelling place for prayer," he wrote. "The only way to miss the religious or nonsecular appearance of the monument would be to walk through [the building] with one's eyes closed."
Nor did Justice Moore leave much doubt as to his motives. Among other evidence that the Decalogue was a monument to "the Judeo-Christian God," Judge Thompson quoted Justice Moore hoping that its installation "marks the beginning of the restoration of the moral foundation of law to our people and a return to the knowledge of God in our land."
So, if there is a case to be made for the display of religious symbols on public property, Justice Moore is not the best man to make it.
But rest assured, it will be made. Alabama isn't the only place where people are fighting over public display of the Decalogue. Similar court fights or threatened lawsuits over public displays of the Ten Commandments have arisen in at least 18 states.
Many of the lawsuits involved monuments that date to the 1950s, when movie producer Cecil B. DeMille promoted his epic The Ten Commandments by encouraging 4,000 tablets across the country, paid for by the Fraternal Order of Eagles. Yesterday's seemingly benign monuments have become today's targets.
Yes, the Ten Commandments might be displayed in public spaces if the monuments reduce the significance of Moses' law to the same secular significance of other laws that led up to our modern statutes.
But is that what the religiously faithful want? It seems to me that the Constitution protects our right to plenty of private spaces where the meaning of the Ten Commandments and other religious symbols does not have to be watered down.
Clarence Page is a columnist for the Chicago Tribune, a Tribune Publishing newspaper. His column appears Fridays in The Sun. He can be reached at email@example.com.