Try to take the Ten Commandments out of this courtroom, Gov. Fob James declared to Alabama Circuit Judge Charles Price, and you'll be staring down the barrel of a few dozen M-16s. Even though he is fighting on a different issue with a very different moral base, Gov. James's position evoked the memory of George Wallace's stand in the schoolhouse door more than 30 years ago. The governor has planted his feet, crossed his arms, and dared a judge to enforce his ruling that the Ten Commandments must go. The governor promised that the National Guard and the Alabama State Police would be there to greet the judge or his enforcers, unless President Clinton federalizes the guard.
This declaration of solidarity with an Alabama circuit judge is the latest escalation in a battle that Judge Roy Moore has been waging for no less than the right to acknowledge God in public life. This simmering set-to has been on the back burner for months, but with the governor's defiant statements, the eyes of the nation have been drawn once again to the Heart of Dixie, nerve center for so many events from the birth of the Confederacy to the Civil Rights revolution.
The governor, whose actions often are ridiculed and lampooned in the state press, has joined Judge Moore as a folk hero of sorts to those who believe a liberal reading of the Constitution is illegally eliminating God from daily life. The governor's renown--and with it support for his cause--is spreading. In the four days after Gov. James uttered his fighting words, he and Judge Moore went on national network television; big papers like the Los Angeles Times and The New York Times called; the state's attorney general appeared on James Dobson's radio program.
Already, Judge Moore had said the judge could take his job or jail him for contempt, but as long as he was in the courtroom, the Ten Commandments would stay. And now the governor and the judge wait for whatever is next. Will Judge Charles Price call their bluff? And--important for the judge to consider--is Gov. Fob James bluffing? Not likely.
The stage for this round was set on Feb. 5, when Gov. James attended a Southern Baptist Convention prayer luncheon in Montgomery. Richard Land of the SBC's Christian Life Commission was a guest speaker.
Gov. James didn't go to utter fighting words about prayer or the Ten Commandments. He was there to discuss his legislative agenda. He listened to Mr. Land talk about the bad effect of the Supreme Court decision to ban prayer from school, and how the lack of Christian response had facilitated the change.
As he listened, the conservative former Democrat's mind turned to the battle raging in his own state over whether Judge Moore should be allowed to hang the Ten Commandments on his courtroom wall and invite local clergy to lead prayers in his courtroom.
Judge Price had ruled that the Ten Commandments could stay--only temporarily, it turned out--but that the prayers had to stop immediately.
Mr. Land, the firebrand executive director of the Christian Life Commission, told the group that America is in danger of collapsing into amorality. He encouraged people to work through government to keep the country on a moral path. As Mr. Land exhorted his listeners to become involved and stymie the unwarranted intrusion of the government into spiritual affairs, Gov. James thought to himself: "We've been down this road before, and enough is enough."
So when the two-term Republican governor stood to speak, he took his cue from Mr. Land and drew his line. "It is not often in our lifetime that you can heed a lesson of history," he said, "but I say to my fellow Alabamians at this moment, the only way those Ten Commandments and that prayer will be stripped from that court is with the force of arms. Make no mistake about that statement."
Fob James says now that he didn't expect his words to go much beyond the room, but go they did, and within 24 hours newspaper and TV reporters were calling from all corners of the country. "I thought I was just stating a plain, constitutional principle," he says, "and a duty of any office holder to uphold the constitution."
Roy Moore, the man who originally ignited this debate, is a district judge in the northeast Alabama town of Gadsden, in Etowah County. (See WORLD's profile, Sept. 21, 1996.)
In 1980, he made a wooden plaque to resemble two stone tablets and, with a wood-burning tool, etched the Ten Commandments into the wood. He displayed the plaque in his home and later in his law office. When he became a judge in 1992, he hung the plaque in his courtroom.
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 "purely religious." Mr. Price wrote that Mr. Moore "has 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.
"I 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. "He 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. "That 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.
The governor believes that prayer--in court, in schools, in other public settings, at government functions--is legitimate and supported by history.
There may be no better pairing for this battle than Roy Moore and Fob James. Judge Moore weathered a nasty run for judge in 1982 in which his opponents took umbrage at his characterizations of the influence of money on the local judiciary. Their complaints landed him before a judicial review panel. The Alabama Supreme Court ultimately upheld his right to say what he said.
And Fob James has survived and prevailed in two campaigns for governor; he also has survived assaults from a press that is critical of his decisions and often paints him as a redneck, back-room politician who is an embarrassment to the state. The political writers and cartoonists never let him forget his evolutionary monkeyshines. But the criticism doesn't faze him, an aide says. "He's a tough guy. He's not bothered at all by that."
Now Judge Moore and Gov. James are shoulder to shoulder in the courthouse door to defend the courtroom from the rulings of a judge who says that God is not to be acknowledged inside the hallowed halls.
David Smolin, a professor at Samford University's Law School, believes the judge is on firm ground, constitutionally and historically.
This case, he says, highlights an "apparent oddity of the [U.S. Supreme Court] justices' claiming that government had to be religiously neutral, and then participating in the inaugural ceremony, which is clearly a Christian ceremony from the point of view of a Christian Bible being used, and an oath of office.
"It's pretty clear that the inauguration sends a message of religious endorsement of government and government endorsement of Christianity, because it's a Christian Bible that's used, a Trinitarian prayer. And it's rather odd that the justices then go and and claim to impose this rule that government and all its dealings shall appear neutral between religion and non-religion.
"My own view," he says, "is that the justices would be out of line in striking down what Judge Moore is doing, but it's hard to say what they would actually do based on what they say.
"I imagine from Judge Moore's perspective it's a very simple matter. He envisions himself like Daniel, being ordered not to pray. Or like Peter in the book of Acts being told not to preach in the name of Christ."
With an aggressive judiciary changing the intent and meaning of the Constitution, and taking elections out of the hands of the voters, as judges in Colorado and California have done, Gov. James and Judge Moore are not alone in their fight to keep powers separate.
In the November issue of the journal First Things, Chuck Colson cautiously broached the subject of civil disobedience. Citing the judiciary's "systematic usurpation of ultimate political power," he warned the church may be headed for a direct confrontation with the state. The subject was a perilous one for Mr. Colson to raise; it was so controversial that two members of the First Things editorial board resigned.
"A court empowered to judge a statute's constitutionality by that court's own inference of the animus of the statute's sponsors is a court set free from any limitations on its power.... The free exercise clause of the First Amendment," he wrote, "poses no obstacle to a judge with any creativity, and--given the demonstrated animus of the current judicial regime against believers--a showdown between church and state may be inevitable."
Mr. Colson was careful to say he neither advocates nor hopes for an open rebellion. However, he said, we should be aware we may face the same sort of decision facing Gov. James and Judge Moore. Mr. Colson thus concludes his essay: "We must--slowly, prayerfully, and with great deliberation and serious debate--prepare ourselves for what the future seems likely to bring under a regime in which the courts have usurped the democratic process by reckless exercise of naked power."
From the moment that Gov. James mentioned the national guard, the comparisons to his wrongheaded political forefather, Gov. George Wallace, have been numerous. In the light of history, of course, we know that Gov. Wallace's confrontation with the feds was scripted, a cynical ploy, some say, for white votes.
The comparison of the present governor to the former is one that Gov. James rejects. "Gov. Wallace was wrong, and he admits he was wrong," he says. Gov. James told WORLD he sees his action in the line of Abraham Lincoln: "Prior to the Civil War, the United States Supreme Court ruled in the Dred Scott case that slavery was legal. President Lincoln refused to obey that order, and issued the Emancipation Proclamation.... If you just read a little history, it's as clear as the nose on your face."
While many have come to the side of Gov. James and Judge Moore, neither needs help talking. In his own way, each is articulate, Judge Moore in a scholarly fashion, Gov. James in a more colorful way.
And neither harbors doubt about his positions. Judge Price's rulings are "clearly unconstitutional, clearly illegal," Gov. James says. "If we accept all such court orders as being law, we no longer have a government of law, we have a government of men, namely a few judges. Most of the time judges and courts respect separation of powers, and leave the lawmaking to the legislature and the administration to the executive. When you have an abuse of this power, the legislative and the executive should respond to protect the Constitution and protect the rights of the people. And I believe it is the Constitution that I am sworn to uphold, and I will uphold it to the best of my ability."
The governor doesn't want an armed confrontation, and he doesn't believe this will go that far. But he's bound to take whatever precaution is necessary to protect the principle.
"What we're concerned about is unless this case at the state level is fully understood, it'll get in the federal courts, and we'll have a repeat performance of the 1962 prayer decision. We don't need that," he says. "I think Judge Price was acting totally outside of the law and the constitution. We will certainly resist that within the full legal framework.
"If the Supreme Court issued an order to me to strip the court of the Ten Commandments, I would refuse to do it. And then at that point, the president--and this is way down the line--could force that by nationalizing the national guard. So you'd have an American president taking an executive action to strip the Ten Commandments from the court. I don't think an American president would do it, nor do I think Congress would allow that.
"I have been wrong before. I never thought we would see a Supreme Court decision like the one in 1962.... It just seems like there is an insidious effort judicially to strip any vestige of religion or recognition or acknowledgment of God from every aspect of American life. We think that is categorically unconstitutional. That is why we've decided to resist it."
When Judge Price issued his ruling on Feb. 10, he gave Judge Moore 10 days to remove the Ten Commandments. Bill Pryor, Alabama's attorney general, has asked for a stay. So in the next weeks, both the question of prayer and the Ten Commandments will be before the Alabama Supreme Court. And people on both sides have said they will appeal this to the highest level.
In the end, it's not just about the right to acknowledge God in public. Judge Moore and Gov. James are fighting for the very principle of self-rule and freedom for religion established by the Constitution, trying to turn aright a document dumped upside down by American judges.
"If we accept on blind faith that 100 percent of the time every court order had to be obeyed," Gov. James says, "then you have absolutely given up your democracy, you have become subservient to one judge, or at the most, five of nine judges sitting on the U.S. Supreme Court, and that is not what our Constitution is about."
And the governor reminds us once again that this fight is not original with him and Judge Moore. "Throughout our history--George Washington, John Adams, Madison, Monroe, Jackson, Lincoln--absolutely, on occasion, refused to obey court orders," he says. "So don't argue with me. Argue with Jefferson, Madison, Lincoln, Jackson. That's kind of the way we are."