Commandments fray goes beyond Alabama
Christian proponents have been on the losing end of legal battles, but many now feel energized by a new cause.
MONTGOMERY, ALA. — Jesse Truax, wearing a crown of thorns, is grimacing from the prickle as sweat wends down his cheeks in the sweltering heat. After a daylong bus ride, he's here all the way from Eustis, Fla., with a group of 33 from his Baptist church, vowing to "stay as long as it takes" to keep the sacred Ten Commandments monument here in the rotunda of the judicial building. Though the legal scales keep tilting toward the tablets' removal, Mr. Truax is unfazed, and that crown is planted firmly on his head.
The battle is unfolding on the street where Jefferson Davis declared war in 1861, where George Wallace fought for segregation and where Martin Luther King Jr. marched to end it. Now it's a onetime Sunday school teacher who has risen to prominence for his stand on the Bible in the courtroom - and drawn a crowd of staunch defenders, opportunists, and media to his stand of pious rebellion. [Editor's note: The original version of this article misstated the year when Jefferson Davis declared war.]
But as the frenzy continues and Judge Moore staunchly refuses to have his monument moved, the legacy of "Roy's Rock" is fluid: Will it go down in history as one man's small-time politico-religious circus? Or is it a nascent national movement, the catalyst for a galvanized Christian right that will ripple more broadly - and rancorously - through the American justice system?
"To people who have strong religious convictions, these things become very tangible symbols of what's wrong with the country," says John Green, a political analyst at the University of Akron and director of the Bliss Institute. "This could indeed spark a renewal of activism. But more importantly, it could bring a fresh supply of activists."
In fact, Moore's monument parallels moves under way by a group called Faith and Action, which has had about 400 marble slabs and carved tables installed in public places political offices. Lawsuits, of course, have followed, and in most cases, courts have ruled against the displays.
Experts warn the issue itself - stone tablets in public - is narrow and perishable. To compare Moore's stand on the courthouse steps to a historical moment such as Wallace's stand in the schoolhouse door before thousands is "ludicrous," says Dean Culpepper Clark of the University of Alabama College of Communication, author of a book on Wallace. "Judge Moore claims to represent people who are in no way oppressed," Mr. Clark says.
Most educated Alabamians consider Moore a zealot out of touch with mainstream Christianity, says Clark, who suspects they'll abandon Moore as he flouts the system and defies judges.
Still, he adds, the galvanization of the Christian right "could ripple out a good bit."
The crowd's devotion, says Clark, is somewhat baffling: Moore's followers have braved the heat on marble stairs, even slept there for several nights, when conservative Christian Republicans control the White House, both houses of Congress, the Alabama governor's mansion, the state Legislature, and the state Supreme Court. But many of the faithful feel besieged all the same - in part by rulings such as the Texas sodomy case. That unease helps make this a galvanizing time for the Christian right.
Unless the US Supreme Court agrees to hear the case - unlikely since it rejected Moore's petition for a stay - the fight will soon end. Moore has until the end of September to file his petition to be heard. If the high court doesn't step in, Moore could run for office or, as Cohen suggests, fight as an outsider, on the model of Martin Luther King Jr. "You can't be a judge and defy a court order," Cohen says. The Alabama Judicial Inquiry Commission, charged with looking into Moore's possible contempt of court, may have to remove him from office.
Many of those in power have no quibble with the commandments, even in a courthouse. But most, except Moore's followers, agree that when the highest courts rule, they should be obeyed, says Richard Cohen, executive director of the Southern Poverty Law Center, one of the civil liberties groups that brought the case against the tablets.
A new legal team assembled for the appeal has filed a lawsuit in federal court with a hearing set for Wednesday. Legal observers say it's an attempt to change the case from one about a religious display crossing the church-state divide to one about Moore's right of free speech and religious expression. It's a novel tactic - and one that may buy more time in the limelight.
The glass doors to the judicial building are locked, after a group of protesters refused to leave at closing last week when all eight members of the state Supreme Court voted to suspend Moore and comply with the federal court's order to remove the slabs from display. Protesters dropped to their knees and prayed. They were carried out.
Federal District Judge Myron Thompson imposed daily fines of $5,000 on the state for contempt of his ruling - a decision upheld this month by the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals. For that, Judge Thompson has received death threats. Morris Dees, founder and director of the Southern Poverty Law Center, who conducted a tough cross-examination of Moore, is also staying out of public view due to threats on his life. And security around Montgomery is high, in anticipation of violence from Moore's followers upon the monument's removal.
Near the judicial building here, protests are varied. Sunday night, one man climbed up on the building. Police took him away hours later. Across the street from the court, protesters - atheists, Jews, gays, and others - demanded the monument be removed. "We came here to show that a majority of Alabamians want the monument removed now," says Larry Darby, state director for American Atheists. "Roy Moore is a renegade judge, a disgrace to the bench and the bar."
Alabama Attorney General Bill Pryor, a conservative Republican who's supported Moore in the past, tried to hire the same company to remove the monument that helped Justice Moore sneak it into the courthouse in the middle of the night. The company refused. The plan now is to move the 5,300-pound granite slabs to a closet, then to a less controversial site, such as a church.
Moore wiped sweat from his face during a statement Monday and quoted Patrick Henry: "Should I abandon my conscience now?" Protesters, mostly clad in shorts, shouted "No," as Moore and his blue-suited entourage left for a limousine.
Down the street on a shady bench, Thom-as Green watched people come and go, asking for change for a Coke. "I'm a Christian, but God don't need defending," he says. "Between Alabama and California, they could put Barnum and Bailey out of business."