Around midday, when the sun beats down hard on this historic capital city, the grand marble rotunda in the state Supreme Court building is a cool and shaded refuge. The only point of light and heat is a tall bank of windows, where the sun's rays pour into an alcove, illuminating a two-ton granite monument that most everyone around here simply calls "Roy's Rock."

Chief Justice Roy Moore sneaked the monument into the building one night last summer after his fellow judges had gone home. The next day he unveiled his surprise, pulling back a red drape and revealing two familiar polished tablets bearing "The Ten Commandments." The inevitable lawsuit demanding the removal of the monument crystallized here today in a federal courtroom down the street, where an overflow crowd gathered to watch closing arguments and to gawk at the man known as "The Ten Commandments Judge." The legal battle over Moore's monument has swelled with time, captivating Alabamians and broadening to encompass larger questions of church and state.

U.S. District Judge Myron H. Thompson, who said he would rule by Nov. 18 on whether the monument could remain in the Alabama court building, framed the case in the biggest and boldest terms today, telling attorneys, "The issue here is: Can the state acknowledge God?" The implications of such a question are huge, of course, especially during a time when the nation's courts are grappling with nettlesome debates about references to God in everything from the Pledge of Allegiance to statehouse plaques. Thompson framed the case in just the way that Moore's attorneys want it. From the beginning, they have sought to make the case about much more than the Ten Commandments monument.

Instead, they are attacking what they perceive to be a nationwide movement using the First Amendment's ban on Congress establishing laws respecting religion "as a sword to sever the historic relationship between God and our government." Moore's opponents -- three Alabama attorneys represented by the American Civil Liberties Union, the Southern Poverty Law Center and Americans United for Separation of Church and State -- prefer a more narrowly defined case that focuses solely on references to God on the monument as a means of the politically powerful imposing their religion on the minority.

"The association of those words with the top figure of the Alabama judiciary is coercive," said Danielle Lipow, a Southern Poverty Law Center attorney.

Alabama icons of the left and the right loomed over the trial, which lasted six days. Moore, square-jawed, sat on one side, his hands often knit, as if in prayer. He is beloved by Christian conservatives in this city of 200,000, where Baptist churches alone fill more than two pages in the phone book. On the other side sat Morris Dees, the revered co-founder of the Southern Poverty Law Center, famed for relentlessly tracking the Ku Klux Klan and other hate groups.

Shortly before the trial started, Dees's staff accidentally sent Moore's attorneys a letter he'd written. In it, Dees called Moore "a religious nut." Certainly, Dees has his adherents on that count, but when it comes to public sentiment in this Bible Belt state, Moore seems to have an advantage. Buses of church groups from little towns around Alabama arrive almost daily at the state Supreme Court building to see the monument. Some court workers stop there every morning to pray before it. Pastors dedicate evening prayers to his cause.

"He's become a folk hero," said Emory Folmar, the conservative former mayor of Montgomery.

Even Democrats are awestruck at the public appeal of Moore, who is a Republican.

"I have no doubt that if he were running for governor right now, he'd be the leader," said Paul Hubbert, the influential head of the state teachers union and a force in Alabama Democratic politics for decades.

Last summer, before the lawsuit was filed, more than 77 percent of Alabamians polled by the Mobile Register and the University of South Alabama said they approved of the monument, though 64 percent disapproved of Moore installing it without telling his fellow judges.

Moore was identified with the Ten Commandments long before the monument was installed. In the mid-1990s, he burned the commandments into a pair of rosewood tablets he'd made and hung them in his courtroom in Etowah County, north of Birmingham, where he was a circuit court judge.

Moore was a virtual unknown at the time, but he became an instant, nationwide celebrity when the ACLU sued him and he later defied a court ruling ordering him to take down the tablets. The tablets stayed up when the state Supreme Court later threw out the case.

"Had it not been for the lawsuit, I don't think he would be where he is," said Joel Sogol, a Tuscaloosa attorney who filed the lawsuit on behalf of the ACLU.

In the years since, Moore has been a regular on the tent revival circuit, hailed by cheering crowds in Tennessee, Colorado, Florida and elsewhere.

Moore parlayed his notoriety into a run for the state Supreme Court in 2000, defeating an incumbent after mounting billboards and television advertisements proclaiming himself "The Ten Commandments Judge."

Moore had been in office eight months when he secretly installed the monument. He walked into the rotunda trailed by a film crew from Coral Ridges Ministries, a Fort Lauderdale, Fla., evangelical organization run by D. James Kennedy, who says he has millions of viewers for his religious programming. Kennedy later sold videotapes of the installation for $19 each to raise money for Moore's defense.

On the videotape, Moore can be seen in a white undershirt and black slacks, dragging the monument's foundation. He has big hands and thickly muscled forearms, the result of weekends spent building stone fences at his country home and a brief dalliance as a professional kickboxer.

At one point in the tape, Moore, wearing his judge's robes, launches into one of his trademark poems: "Choosing godless judges, we've thrown reason out the door/Too soft to put a killer in a well-deserved tomb, but brave enough to kill that child before it leaves the womb/ . . . you think that God's not angry that this land is a moral slum?" During the trial, Moore has been less vocal, except when testifying. He has not talked to reporters and declined to be interviewed for this article.

In court today, one of Moore's attorneys, Herbert Titus, the former dean of the law school at Pat Robertson's Regent University, said Moore's judicial philosophy is that there is a "moral foundation of law with the acknowledgment that God is the source of that foundation."

But as the opposing lawyers argued that God has no place in the courtroom, Thompson might have made the only claim that no one in the room could dispute: "Some people might think that if the Ten Commandments are true commandments, a lot of people are not complying." Thompson grinned, and the audience laughed.

Chief Justice Roy Moore and his wife Kayla outside court where his monument is subject of separation of church and state suit. U.S. Judge Myron H. Thompson views "Ten Commandments" monument inside Alabama court building."Choosing godless judges, we've thrown reason out the door," says Justice Roy Moore on videotape sold by evangelical organization.