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Judge to lose monument to his faith

Roy Moore might be the chief justice of the Alabama Supreme Court, but around here most folks just call him the Ten Commandments judge.

And the 5,280-pound monument to the holy tablets he wheeled into his courthouse early one morning, without the knowledge of his colleagues, is simply known as "Roy's rock."

Almost instantly the chunk of granite became a beacon, a shinning light across the South, drawing fundamentalist Christians to Montgomery by the busload. Many dropped to their knees in front of the monument and prayed, right in the middle of the lobby.

Civil liberties groups accused Moore of turning a courthouse into a church. But his popularity only grew. Not that long ago, Moore was a little-known county judge with a homemade plaque of the Ten Commandments tacked to his courtroom wall. With the bigger courthouse monument, he was an Alabama folk hero.

But on Monday a federal judge issued his own commandment: Remove the monument. Now.

"This court holds that the evidence is overwhelming and the law is clear that the chief justice violated the Establishment Clause," wrote Judge Myron Thompson of U.S. District Court in a crackling opinion. The monument is "nothing less than an obtrusive year-round religious display intended to proselytize on behalf of a particular religion, the chief justice's religion."

In Alabama, there's no underestimating the popularity of religion _ and defiance. While fundamentalists in Kansas lost their battle for creationism, and school prayer supporters were defeated in Texas, evangelical Christians set the agenda here. This is the state, after all, where high school science books have stickers on them saying evolution is a theory.

Moore tapped right into this, becoming a figurehead in the movement pushing for more religion in public life. The 55-year-old judge, former ranch hand and kick boxer, does radio shows, helps raise money for evangelical groups and travels roads near and far in his old blue Cadillac, promoting his unique blend of church and state.

Monday's decision was hailed by civil liberties groups as evidence that even in a very religious place, there are limits.

"Justice Moore was elected to administer justice, not to serve as a religious minister," said Richard Cohen, general counsel of the Southern Poverty Law Center, one of the parties that sued last month to have the Ten Commandments monument removed. "This ruling left no doubt. It wasn't even close. What Moore did was way, way wrong."

Moore's lawyer issued a short statement saying the federal courts were "confused." He vowed to appeal.

In the past, Moore has said he would never remove the monument, a 4-foot tall piece of granite that rises up from the lobby floor. It was one of his campaign pledges, when he was elected chief justice two years ago, to bring the Ten Commandments to the state Supreme Court.

He has rejected requests from outside groups to display other monuments in the courthouse. By state law, it is his decision. In the chief justice's pocket are the courthouse keys. An alliance of black organizations asked to put up a plaque of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.'s "I Have a Dream" speech. Moore said no. Ditto for the atheist group that wanted to display a statue of an atom.

Moore received money for legal help from several Christian groups who used this as an opportunity to advance the public display of religion. Groups opposed to religion displays in government premises, like the American Civil Liberties Union and the People United for the Separation of Church and State, saw the case as a means to curb it.

The roots of the case go back to 1992, when Moore was appointed a judge in Etowah County, in northwestern Alabama. One of the first things he did was hang a homemade rosewood plaque of the Ten Commandments in his courtroom.

Three years later, the ACLU sued. The first judge on the case ordered Moore to take it down. Moore refused. Then governor Fob James Jr. threatened to send in the National Guard to protect Moore's plaque.

Moore became a cause celebre, boosting his name recognition into that stratospheric realm few judges enjoy.

Moore emerged a contender for state Supreme Court justice and won easily in November 2000.

The next August, early one morning, he sneaked the giant monument, paid for by an evangelical group, into the state Supreme Court. He did not inform the eight other justices of his plans.

Montgomery lawyer Stephen Glassroth, who is Jewish, sued.

"It offends me going to work everyday and coming face to face with that symbol, which says to me that the state endorses Moore's version of the Judeo-Christian God above all others," Glassroth said.

Last month, a weeklong trial was held in U.S. District Court.

Moore argued the monument does not establish a state religion but merely acknowledges the role God has played throughout the history of American law.

"I feel very strongly that the monument represents the moral foundation of law, which is greatly needed in our country today," Moore said.

After mulling over his decision for a month, Thompson issued a 93-page opinion saying Moore had violated the separation between church and state.

"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," the judge wrote.

He said the display was different from other displays of the Ten Commandments, including one at the U.S. Supreme Court that is incorporated with other symbols.

He gave Moore 30 days to remove the monument from the courthouse.

Christian groups in Alabama said they were not giving up.

"We anticipate wide ranging resistance to the removal of this monument," said John Giles, president of the Christian Coalition of Alabama.

The case against Moore and his monument is not an attack on any who holds strong religious beliefs, said Danielle Lipow, who delivered the closing argument for the Southern Poverty Law Center.

"Judge Moore has every right to believe what he does about the role of God and the state," she said. "What this case does is establish that Judge Moore does not have the right to impose that view on others through state policy. That's the danger."