Cover Story

Alabama Governor Fob James: leader of the resistance

"Alabama Governor Fob James: leader of the resistance" Continued...

Issue: "Drawing the Line," Feb. 22, 1997

The ACLU and the Alabama Freethought Association sued. Judge Charles Price in Montgomery ordered Judge Moore to stop the prayers, but said the Ten Commandments could stay. Both sides won a point. In losing, however, Judge Moore said he would go to jail before he stopped the prayers. And both sides appealed the decision.

The Alabama Supreme Court issued a stay on the prohibition of prayer. Two days after Gov. James promised to defend the courthouse, Judge Price journeyed from Montgomery to Gadsden to view for himself the Ten Commandments on the wall.

The trip changed his mind. In reversing himself, Judge Price said the plaque is &quotpurely religious." Mr. Price wrote that Mr. Moore &quothas unequivocally stated that the plaques are not in the courtroom for a historical, judicial, or educational purpose, but rather, and clearly to promote religion."

The plaques violate both the U.S. and Alabama constitutions, Mr. Price said, and Mr. Moore could either add nonreligious items to create a larger display incorporating the Ten Commandments or the plaque must go.

Gov. James received news of Mr. Price's decision a short time before his weekly, call-in radio show. He wrote out a statement that reiterated his intention to defend Mr. Moore's courtroom and read it on his program.

&quotI am sworn to uphold the United States Constitution and I will.... Judge Price's order stripping Judge Moore's courtroom of the Ten Commandments clearly prohibits the exercise of religion. I would use all legal means at my disposal, which includes the National Guard and the state troopers, to prevent the removal of the Ten Commandments from Judge Moore's courtroom."

Fob James is no stranger to the national spotlight, and the light shed on him generally is not a kind one. He is a businessman who served his first term as governor as a Democrat. By the time he ran for a second term in 1995 (beating the son of legendary Gov. Jim Folsom), Gov. James had switched to the Republican Party.

The governor made national headlines and became the target of many editorial cartoonists when he re-instituted the prisoner chain gang, an image that evoked memories of Alabama's cruel segregationist past.

Gov. James not only endured the nation's scrutiny, but he never withered under vicious verbal attacks and Southern slanders. He vigorously defended the decision, and within a year he was vindicated to a degree as other states followed Alabama's lead.

He stole headlines during the debate in Alabama over the teaching of evolution in school books. The state school board was debating whether or not to put labels in the front of textbooks that would say that evolution is only one theory on the origins of life.

In explaining that he believes the biblical account of creation, Gov. James mimicked an evolving ape. It was meant as comic relief, but he became the butt of many jokes for his act. In another scene-stealing act, Gov. James borrowed a gun from a state trooper to make a point. Nobody, not even aide Alfred Sawyer, remembers the point he was making. But most people remember the gun.

It is with that brass and bravado that Gov. James has waded into this fray, not acting like a monkey but as the governor of Alabama, brandishing the guns of the national guard, warning the judges not to trespass.

To hear Fob James speak is to know he's from the South, if not Alabama. He speaks slowly, and some words are undecipherable to outsiders. Not only does he have the accent, but he speaks the language of the generally conservative state, where many of the major statewide offices now are held by Republicans and where many Democrats at all levels are switching to the GOP. So when he stands up for God, Fob James is in friendly territory with the populace.

Gene Owens, political editor at the Mobile Register, says Gov. James's actions are consistent with his beliefs. &quotHe is a guy who will shoot from the hip. I think he really believes he is right in what he is doing," Mr. Owens says. &quotThat accords with his basic way of thinking. He has read enough law journals to believe he has the legal basis for what he is doing. He's also enough of a politician to know what he is doing accords with the majority of grass-roots Alabamians...."

In rushing to Judge Moore's side, Gov. James is simply acting out long-held beliefs. The governor sees this as a classic confrontation between the judiciary, which has overstepped its constitutional authority, and the executive and the legislative branches. In making that statement, Gov. James says, he is standing in a historical tradition that started with Thomas Jefferson, when Jefferson expounded on the doctrine of non-acquiescence. If the courts exceed their constitutional authority, the other two branches of government must draw the line.

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