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Why Roy Moore, Alabama's chief justice, could be removed – again

Roy Moore is on trial for his refusal to obey the federal court ruling legalizing same-sex marriage. It's the same position he was removed from 13 years ago.

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    Alabama Chief Justice Roy Moore speaks to the media during a news conference in Montgomery, Ala., on Aug. 8, 2016. He is accused of breaking judicial ethics during the fight over same-sex marriage in the state.
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Alabama Chief Justice Roy Moore is no stranger to controversy. Following his removal from the same position 13 years ago, Judge Moore is on trial for ethics violation with possible removal from the bench again – this time for refusing to obey the Supreme Court ruling legalizing same-sex marriage.

He was met with a Judicial Inquiry Commission complaint and suspension after he issued an order in January prohibiting the state’s judges from distributing marriage licenses to same-sex couples.

But Moore’s repeated clashes with the law signals his bigger fight for religious rights over laws – and an assertion of some states’ interests in Washington, at a time when some Southerners say there's a disconnect.

“In the end, he doesn’t hold any hope of actually stopping any of these marriages. But the big question here is jurisdiction: Who has jurisdiction over defining the family? This is about state relevance,” Shannon Bridgmon, a native Alabamian and a political scientist at Northeastern State University in Tahlequah, Okla., told The Christian Science Monitor's Patrik Jonsson in January.

In January, Moore wrote an administrative order to Alabama probate judges, saying that the federal ruling legalizing same-sex marriage only applied to Michigan, Kentucky, Ohio, and Tennessee. 

"Until further decision by the Alabama Supreme Court, the existing orders of the Alabama Supreme Court that Alabama probate judges have a ministerial duty not to issue any marriage license contrary to the Alabama Sanctity of Marriage Amendment or the Alabama Marriage Protection Act remain in full force and effect," he wrote.

Moore was suspended following a complaint from the Alabama Judicial Inquiry Commission, stating he "flagrantly disregarded a fundamental constitutional right guaranteed in all states as declared by the United States Court in Obergefell."

He is a controversial figure known to challenge norms and resolutely uphold his religious beliefs. His first removal from the bench in 2003 occurred when he installed a carved granite monument of the Ten Commandments in his courtroom without approval of other court members.

"I am not trying to impose my views on anyone," Moore testified in a subsequent hearing. "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."

Moore contended that the Ten Commandments are the foundation of the US legal system, and that forbidding the acknowledgment of the Judeo-Christian God violates the First Amendment's guarantee of free exercise of religion, as he explained in a CNN interview in 2003

Only one in five Americans approved of the federal court order to remove the monument, according to a 2003 poll from CNN-USA Today-Gallup.

“For now, Judge Moore's gambit is the most daring effort– legally and artistically– to put God at the center of US society,” The Christian Science Monitor reported in 2002. The monument drew crowds of Christians who “arrived by the busload to view it, with some kneeling and pray before it like a holy shrine,” as the Monitor's Glynn Wilson reported. 

His actions were met with criticism from those who accused him of “putting the Judeo-Christian god above others” and for affronting the First Amendment ban on government establishment of religion.

But Alabama residents voted Moore back into office in 2012, the year President Barack Obama endorsed same-sex marriage. The state had passed a constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage in 2006, and some surveys have shown that majority of the state residents don’t support same-sex marriage today. The amendment was struck down by a federal judge in 2015.

But Moore's tendency to put religion and law together elicits concern from many who see it as a disregard for the constitution.

"Roy Moore doesn't know the difference between being a judge and being a preacher," Richard Cohen, the president of the Southern Poverty Law Center, told NPR in an interview. "He thinks his religious beliefs should trump his obligations under the law, and that's a dangerous thing."

Parallels were drawn to former Alabama Gov. George Wallace, who refused to desegregate schools in the 60s, defying federal laws. The consensus among legal observers seem to be that as a chief justice, Moore should draw a line between his own religious beliefs and what the law stands for.

“I think the big picture here is that law isn’t politics and politics isn’t the law,” Ronald Krotoszynski Jr., a professor at the University of Alabama School of Law, told the Monitor in January. “As a political matter, the chief justice can oppose Obergefell, argue it’s wrongly decided, and propose an amendment to the federal Constitution. But as the chief justice of Alabama, there’s no meritorious argument here.”

And not all in Alabama agree with Moore. Some said that they should keep their opinions on same-sex marriage to themselves, and judges in several counties ignored Moore’s orders. Steven Reed, Montgomery County's probate judge, even voiced in on Twitter.

Moore’s trial began Wednesday. It will take a unanimous vote by the Court of the Judiciary to remove him from office.

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