GADSDEN, ALA. — To many Christians in Alabama and across the country, Judge Roy Moore is a hero. Ministers from as far away as West Virginia have come to visit him. Some 6,000 people attended a prayer rally in his honor. Two Norwegians on Rollerblades even came by to see him.
Mr. Moore, a circuit judge in Gadsden, Ala., is being praised for what he does - and won't do. He displays a tablet of the Ten Commandments, which he carved himself, behind his courtroom bench. He also begins jury selection with prayer. What he won't do is stop either practice.
In a state with a strong religious tradition, Moore's courtroom has become the latest battleground over the separation of church and state. On one side are a growing chorus of conservatives and others who say the judge is standing up to the assault on religious beliefs. On the other side are those who argue that Moore and the state don't have the right to promote religious beliefs.
The debate has become so heated that Alabama Gov. Fob James (R) has vowed to call out the National Guard and state troopers if anyone tries to remove prayer or the Ten Commandments from the judge's courtroom.
At the same time, many legal scholars are watching to see if the case - which the American Civil Liberties Union of Alabama brought against Moore a year ago - will go to the US Supreme Court.
"Because of Governor James's resolution to stand by [Moore] ... this has gotten a lot of attention and since there's never been a decision by the US Supreme Court on judicial prayer, it's a likely case that may go up," says Eric Johnston, president of the Rutherford Institute of Alabama, a conservative civil-liberties organization.
The case began in 1995 when the ACLU filed a suit in federal court on behalf of two Etowah County citizens who objected to Moore's use of prayer in court. James filed a countersuit on behalf of Moore in Montgomery Circuit Court. The presiding judge found both the prayer and the display of the Ten Commandments unconstitutional. He ordered Moore to stop the prayer and said he could display the Ten Commandments as long as he included them with other historic or cultural items.
Moore said he would not comply, and the Alabama Supreme Court granted him a stay before his next court session began Feb. 24. The Alabama Supreme Court will likely hear the case this summer.
Although Moore has been the focus of the lawsuit, prayer in the courtroom is a practice that has gone on for years in Etowah County and in other parts of Alabama. Experts say it no doubt happens in other states as well. "It could be very common, but it doesn't always go into court," says Rob Boston of Americans United for Separation of Church and State.
But while other judges here have stopped prayer, Moore hasn't. And he is passionate in his refusal to do so. The prayers, he says, are voluntary and are conducted by an invited clergyman at the beginning of jury sessions, which usually occur twice a month. Moore says he doesn't ask the ministers' faiths or beliefs but says they must acknowledge the God of the Holy Bible. In a recent interview in his law-book-lined chambers, he recited passages from law books and points to underlined sections of journals that he says support his stance.
"It's my duty to uphold the US Constitution, which was founded upon the acknowledgment of God and higher law," says Moore, a deeply religious Baptist and a Vietnam veteran. "The acknowledgment of God is not restricted to the Christian faith, but we ... are talking about the Judeo-Christian God of the Holy Bible upon which this nation was founded, and it's not in dispute...," he says. "That means I can't force you to worship God contrary to the dictates of your conscience ... but everyone doesn't have a right or freedom to reinvent what we're established on.... This is a right to acknowledge God, not the establishment of religion."
But many say Moore is indeed promoting religion. "The Supreme Court asks: Is this action something that a reasonable observer would perceive as endorsing or promoting religion? If so, it violates the nonestablishment of religion clause," says Nadine Strossen, national president of the ACLU. "Even if this judge has complete respect for the legal rights for everybody, if you're sitting there as an atheist or Jew or Muslim or as a Christian who doesn't believe in public prayer ... your perception is going to be that the judge is promoting a particular religion that you don't share or a particular religious practice that you don't want to engage in."
Despite the opposition, Moore has plenty of support in this conservative factory town of 43,000. Defenders contend that the prayers are not what one might hear in church or synagogue but more " 'We pray for these jurors to have wisdom and impartiality and understanding,' " Mr. Johnston says.
"Some people may say it gives the appearance that the state is establishing religion because they support that prayer," he says. "I think that a reasonable person would look at it and say, no."
Moore points to the fact that the US Supreme Court opens its session by acknowledging God, and that Congress and the president's inauguration include prayer or references to God. Moreover, he views the Ten Commandments as a set of God-ordained laws that form the basis of the judicial system that don't need to be grouped with other items.
Says the ACLU's Ms. Strossen: "We're not talking about in the Supreme Court where a prayer lasts about two seconds - 'May God save this honorable court.' That's very different from bringing in a minister and leading a prayer. Likewise ... the Supreme Court has a mural that shows the different forces of our law - the Ten Commandments, the Magna Carta, etc. Does that, to a reasonable observer, convey a message of promoting religion? Absolutely not," but Moore's depiction does, she says.