Cover Story

PUSH HAS COME TO SHOVE

Beyond the fight-or-flight reactions to the Alabama Ten Commandments controversy, questions about strategy have gone undebated-here's a start ...

Issue: "Ten Commandments showdown," Aug. 30, 2003

Deadline day in Montgomery, Ala., was polarizing: Federal judges on Thursday, Aug. 21, were persisting in their order to remove a Ten Commandments monument from the rotunda of the Alabama Judicial Building. Police were handcuffing and leading away demonstrators defending the monument. Eight of the nine Alabama Supreme Court justices agreed to comply with the federal order. They directed the building manager to "take all steps necessary to comply ... as soon as practicable."

But on one sentiment many from all sides could agree: Say what you will about the ninth justice, Alabama Chief Justice Roy Moore, he does know how to restart a vital national debate that had been stalled. Facing head-on the problems inherent in removing reverence from public spaces, two years ago he dropped into that rotunda the 2.5-ton block of granite topped by an etched copy of the Ten Commandments.

Although some have criticized Justice Moore for having the monument installed the evening of July 31, 2001, without informing other justices, state officials, or reporters (but with a film crew from D. James Kennedy's ministry on hand), his gambit was hardly a stealth effort. When Mr. Moore began his run for statewide office in 2000-Alabama elects its chief justices-he kicked off his campaign in the local courtroom where he had hung a plaque of the Ten Commandments.

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Alabamians who voted him in knew what they were getting. Mr. Moore in his younger days was a cowboy in Australia and a champion martial-arts fighter in Texas. His campaign three years ago was fueled by publicity he had gained by successfully defying a judicial order to remove the plaque (which he had carved himself) from his courtroom. In an age of bland politicians, Mr. Moore is unafraid to stand firm and speak out. If other officials were also willing to be bold, voters who value courage would not be so excited by movie actors who display special-effects heroism.

Against that backdrop last week, many national talk-show guests were hyperventilating and many editorial pages were ablaze. Some liberals portrayed Justice Moore as a Christian equivalent of the Taliban. Other liberals argued that he should give in to the federal court judges, and some conservatives agreed with that. Alabama Gov. Robert R. Riley and Attorney General William H. Pryor Jr., both conservative Republicans, defended the monument's constitutionality but supported abiding by the federal court order.

Some Christians tended to side with Justice Moore out of appreciation for his guts. Others tended to flee from any association with Justice Moore, lest they be seen by secular neighbors as fundamentalists trying to drop heavy-handed religious beliefs on others as cartoon characters drop anvils on their pursuers. Frequently lost amid the fight-or-flight reactions were the specific arguments.

Here are matters to keep in mind: The American Founders and their successors clearly felt free to depart from the particular civic statutes of ancient Israel, but they largely based our legal system on biblical moral law, so there's nothing wrong with showcasing the most famous statement of that moral law. Almost all Alabamians recognize the Ten Commandments as something special, and displaying them (as opposed to a cross or a passage from the book of Romans) is largely inclusive, since Jews and Muslims as well as Christians revere the words from chapter 20 of Exodus.

Furthermore, the First Amendment was designed not to keep state rotundas Bible-free but to keep the federal government from establishing a denomination (like the Episcopalians) as the preferred group to which state-required taxes and tithes had to flow. Even with that amendment now applied to states through the 14th Amendment, no one was alleging that Justice Moore in his court decisions had replaced Alabama state law with Leviticus, or that those who did not honor the Ten Commandments were silenced in his courtroom.

And yet, many Christians who oppose deleting citations of God or God's law from public forums-that, after all, effectively establishes the religion of atheism-questioned the wisdom of setting up an in-your-face monument and then acting in a way that leads to predictable headlines: "Alabama's Chief Justice Defies Federal Authority." Those headlines were reflected in letters such as this one from the Biloxi Sun-Herald: "How can Judge Roy Moore, the Alabama judge who is in violation of a higher court order to remove the Ten Commandments monument he erected in his courthouse, ever be able to judge another? He should be held in contempt of court. Can you imagine what would happen if you refused to obey his court order?"

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