Thomas Jefferson once used the metaphor in a letter. Then the United States Supreme Court dropped it-"wall of separation between church and state"-into a religion-in-school ruling on Feb. 10, 1947.
"I was born on the next day," Roy Moore, chief justice of the Alabama Supreme Court, states, pausing for effect, his eyes like two pieces of dark, cold coal.
A fluttering golden eagle hangs above his desk; a portrait of Sir William Blackstone, the codifier of English common law, is to his left; a portrait of Abraham Lincoln to his right. Montgomery's summer sun filters through the chief justice's sliding-glass view of downtown.
Leaning back in his chair, Justice Moore twirls pince-nez between fingers that once pulled the trigger in Vietnam, where his college roommate died. Costly conflict is not new to this native Alabamian, who finds meaning far beyond "duty, honor, country"-his West Point school's motto-in the absolute God of the Bible.
"God is, will be, and has been," the still-fit West Point 56-year-old sighs.
His maroon tie, white shirt buttons, and gold belt buckle strike a straight military line, more even than the tilted scales of justice behind him. Though nationally his message is loud and divisive, at least within his chambers, all is quiet, orderly-almost reverential. Then a Ten Commandment clock-one of many Decalogue devices in his chambers-strikes noon.
"Holy, Holy, Holy" ... The rock table clock clanks out an entire verse of the hymn.
Justice Moore grins peevishly and points beside the clock to a worn green Living Bible with gold-leaf inscription: "Chief Justice Warren Earl Burger"-another gift.
For Justice Moore, words-especially of Scripture-are legally vital, keys to good or bad law, to be handled like prized power tools. He speaks in musical machine-gun spurts, followed by cavernous quiets, as if he is reloading; then another rat-a-tat-tat into the heart of some "vain thought," a quote from Romans 1 he uses to sum up the problems of today's judicial system.
Like a good West Pointer, Justice Moore plots strategy and sticks with it: "To fight a war, you've got to commit yourself, whether it be a physical war or spiritual war. You can't back down."
In the land of boiled peanuts, the chief justice's boiled-down truth has many Alabamians seeing him as heroic. "Chief, we need more photos," his assistant, Mary Anne, tells him as he departs for barbeque at Johnny Ray's.
"Photos? What for?"
"They are calling from everywhere and they want your autograph on them."
Like the barbeque at Johnny Ray's where the justice and his team meet to discuss legal strategy, the Moore message is tastily digestible: This battle must go to the United States Supreme Court. There, in 1947, a "wall of separation between church and state" was raised that Justice Moore insists is perpetually misconstrued to override a more fundamental reality that the United States judicial system was founded upon "the law of nature and the law of revelation."