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The Alabama 10 commandments scandal

[ The Atlanta Journal-Constitution: 8/21/03 ]

Ala. justices overrule Moore, order monument removed
U.S. Supreme Court had refused to block federal court order

In Montgomery and in Atlanta

The eight associate justices overruled Chief Justice Roy Moore on Thursday and directed that his Ten Commandments monument be in compliance with a federal court order for its removal from its public site in the Alabama Judicial Building.

The senior associate justice, Gorman Houston, said the eight instructed the building's manager to "take all steps necessary to comply ... as soon as practicable."

A federal judge has ruled the monument violates the constitution's ban on government promotion of religion and must be removed from its public place in the rotunda. Moore said he would not move it.

The associate justices wrote that they are "bound by solemn oath to follow the law, whether they agree or disagree with it."

The monument was briefly walled off from public view Thursday as the federal court deadline passed for the marker to be out of public sight. Then the plywood-like wall came down, displaying the monument again.

Houston said the building manager may have put up the partition in order for the state to be in compliance until the associate justices made a decision. Their seven-page order, signed by all eight, was issued about 10 a.m. The partition had blocked public view of the monument from about 6:30 a.m. to 9:30 a.m.

Outside the State Judicial Building in Alabama's capital, a U.S. District Court deadline came and went Wednesday, the U.S. Supreme Court rejected a plea, defiance spread, hundreds of demonstrators prayed, and officers carted off protesters. Inside, the Ten Commandments monument that was the center of the turmoil remained in place Thursday morning.

Montgomery continued as a makeshift battleground for the separation of church and state debate. Opponents of "Ten Commandment Judge" Roy Moore and the monument he installed in the public building two years ago say they will file charges and complaints against him because of his defiance of a court order for the monument's removal.

Moore's supporters -- 21 of whom were arrested for refusing to leave the 5,280-pound monument when the building closed Wednesday -- said they will continue their efforts also. All but four of those arrested were released later Wednesday. The four who were retained had refused to give identification to authorities.

Moore failed in his attempt to obtain a U.S. Supreme Court stay on the order. The high court, which rejected Moore's plea Wednesday, declined to be drawn into a dispute over whether the monument violated the Constitution's ban on government promotion of religion.

"The U.S. Supreme Court's denial of a stay today will not deter me from continuing to fight for the right of our state to acknowledge God as the moral foundation of our law," Moore said in a statement released Wednesday afternoon. He said he still has other motions pending before the high court and also will file an appeal on the merits of the case.

The order for Moore to remove the monument was the result of a lawsuit filed last year by three attorneys who frequent the State Judicial Building. The attorneys, represented by the Southern Poverty Law Center, the ACLU of Alabama and Americans United for Separation of Church and State, challenged the monument's presence, saying it unlawfully promotes religion in a public building.

U.S. District Judge Myron Thompson in Montgomery agreed, ordering it removed. His decision was upheld last month by the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Atlanta. Thompson indicated he may issue fines of up to $5,000 a day until the monument is taken away.

Thompson has scheduled a conference call for Friday morning with attorneys on both sides of the debate to determine what to do next, said Rhonda Brownstein, the Southern Poverty Law Center's legal director.

Lawyers for the plaintiffs said they will file a motion today to have Moore held in contempt of court if he doesn't remove the monument.

"By his defiance of the court order, he is subjecting the people of Alabama to substantial fines for his conduct," Brownstein said. "He should resign from office. He is a disgrace to the bench."

Brownstein also said the plaintiffs have filed complaints against Moore before the Alabama Judiciary Commission for his statements that he will defy federal court orders. Moore and his attorneys are scheduled to appear before the judicial ethics panel in a private meeting Friday, Brownstein added.

"It looks like he's coming very rapidly to the end of his dead-end road," said Joe Conn, spokesman for Americans United for Separation of Church and State. "He's now lost before every court that he's been in front of. That ought to be a message to him that he's headed down the wrong path."

Many in Montgomery on Wednesday disagreed, supporting Moore in his stand on keeping the Ten Commandments monument in place. Demonstrators -- some of them waving placards saying, "You God Haters: Why do you carry money In God We Trust?" and "Keep the Commandments. Dump the Feds." -- said they would continue the fight.

"It appears Judge Moore's legal options have run out," said the Rev. Pat Mahoney, a Washington, D.C.-based Presbyterian minister and organizer of the largest group of demonstrators. ". . . Now it's up to the people to show our resolve."

Mahoney, who directs the Christian Defense Coalition in Washington, vowed to keep some demonstrators near the monument throughout Wednesday evening and today.

"We will peacefully and prayerfully intervene to keep the monument from going out of this building," he said.

Moore did not attend any of the protests Wednesday but was quite visible. His schedule listed appearances on major news shows of CNN, Fox News, CNBC and the three major broadcast networks.

Several dozen lawyers and representatives of civil rights groups also attended the demonstrations Wednesday.

Patricia Cleveland, director of the Alabama Free Thought Association, drove with friends from Talladega to show support for removal of the religious monument.

"He [Moore] is taking our public facility and making it a place of worship," Cleveland said. "This is a place where justice is supposed to happen. How do we know a judge is being fair when he is promoting his view? . . . I am dedicated to protecting our Constitution and our guarantees of liberty."

Because Moore is the official manager of the State Judicial Building and because he had the monument installed, it is his responsibility to have it removed. If he doesn't comply with the federal court order, however, he is not personally liable for the contempt fines.

Alabama Attorney General Bill Pryor, in a letter sent Wednesday to Jim Carns, minority leader of the state House of Representatives, said "the law is well established" that the state of Alabama would have to pay those fines.

Pryor also noted that if Moore continues to disobey the order, his fellow justices can step in and overrule him.

Under Alabama law, a majority of the state's Supreme Court justices have the authority to "review, countermand, overrule, modify or amend" any administrative decision by the chief justice, Pryor noted. He said the court's justices also have the authority to order Moore to remove the monument by using a rule under the Alabama Constitution that gives the state Supreme Court authority over "all courts" in the state.

Pryor, who once voiced his support for the Ten Commandments monument in the State Judicial Building, has been nominated by President Bush to fill a vacancy on the 11th Circuit, which has upheld Thompson's order to have the monument removed.

-- The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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