Monumental clash over Ten Commandments

A trial examines whether a judge's decision to display a stone tablet at a courthouse violates church-state divide.

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

Not since the state of Tennessee tried John Scopes for teaching evolution in 1925 has so much of an American court's time been spent debating the meaning of words ascribed to God.

This time the issue in federal court did not involve evolution, but revolved around the actions of a controversial yet popular small-town lawyer, Roy Moore, who managed to win election as chief justice of the state Supreme Court in 2000, without the benefit of the Republican Party apparatus. His campaign was based not so much on his qualifications for office, as his fight to keep the Ten Commandments in his courtroom, and his political ads referred to him as "the Ten Commandments judge."

Not long after winning with the support of Southern Baptists, Judge Moore teamed up with a sculptor and designed a two-ton carved stone monument of the Ten Commandments.

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In the dark of night and without the approval of other members of the state's highest court, or even the building superintendent, Moore erected the tablets in the lobby – he says to make an important point about the moral foundation of American law.

The monument is such a hit with some Christians that many have arrived by the busload to view it, with some kneeling and pray before it like a holy shrine.

But this triumph for Moore and many religious adherents has stirred up more than a few tablets-full of legal trouble. To critics, the monument represents a direct affront to the First Amendment's ban on government establishment of religion. The controversy, winding through seven days of courtroom testimony that concluded Tuesday, promises to test the limits of trend toward greater prominence for religion in American public life.

The events of Sept. 11, 2001, put collective prayer in the spotlight. President Bush has proved to be one of nation's most openly religious presidents. And for years, school officials in many Bible Belt states have sought to hang the Ten Commandments on the wall.

For now, Judge Moore's gambit is the most daring effort – legally and artistically – to put God at the center of US society.

The monument set off a firestorm of criticism from groups such as Americans United for the Separation of Church and State, the American Civil Liberties Union, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, and the Southern Poverty Law Center. It also prompted Montgomery lawyer Stephen Glassroth to sue.

"It offends me going to work everyday and coming face to face with that symbol, which says to me that the state endorses Judge Moore's version of the Judeo-Christian God above all others," says Mr. Glassroth. "That is what our ancestors came here to escape, and what our Constitution is supposed to protect us against."

Spurred by televangelists like Pat Robertson, Jerry Falwell, and Tom Rogenberg of Coral Ridge Ministries, Moore's fight in Alabama is only one case in what appears to be an organized movement by the Christian right to rearrange the so-called wall separating church and state and bring cases before the tenuous conservative majority on the US Supreme Court. They believe many of the legal, political, and social problems in the country, such as crime, abortion, and divorce are due to a "moral decline in the land."

Partly due to Moore's notoriety, the case has garnered much media attention in Alabama. During almost three full days, the controversial judge took to the witness stand to argue for the tablets' place in the court.

"I am not trying to impose my views on anyone," Moore testified. "The monument doesn't command anyone to do anything. The purpose is to put God back in his rightful place above the church and the state."

But followers in places like Blount County, north of Birmingham, have already begun to take Moore's stance to mean far more. All through the rolling countryside and along winding county roads, mixed in with the political signs for state and local offices, are hundreds of red, white, and blue signs with a simple message: "Elect Jesus."

"I can't help it if some people misunderstand," Judge Moore said of the elect Jesus campaign, striding in his dark-blue suit across grounds of the U-shaped federal courthouse, with the Greek god of justice a prominent symbol behind him.

In court, many witnesses challenged Moore's monument. "I would say that the founders would believe this monument is an unconstitutional establishment of religion. It seems to promote a public piety and endorses the Judeo-Christian God," said historian Edwin Gaustad.

Over the course of the seven-day trial, the response of Moore's legal team was to quote legal writings as far back in history as the 13th-century to bolster their claim that the founders based their legal views on the Old Testament and the Ten Commandments.

At several points in the trial, experts were quizzed on whether the founders intended for the First Amendment to not only protect individual religious liberty, but to actually foster religion in America as a necessary tool of Democracy.

US District Judge Myron Thompson is expected to issue a ruling in the case by Nov. 18. Mr. Thompson, the first African-American appointed to the federal bench in middle Alabama by President Carter in 1980, often intervened during the questioning to make things clearer in a way that might stand up on appeal to the 11th Circuit Court and the U.S. Supreme Court.

Some observers expect him to find the monument unconstitutional, and to set off protests from Baptists when the monument is ordered removed. The case is expected to be appealed no matter which side wins.

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