The bulky Ten Commandments monument that Alabama's crusading chief justice sneaked into the rotunda of the state Supreme Court building late one night last summer was ruled unconstitutional today by a federal judge.
U.S. District Judge Myron H. Thompson in Montgomery, Ala., repudiated the monument's champion -- Alabama Chief Justice Roy S. Moore -- for creating "a religious sanctuary within the walls of a courthouse." Thompson gave Moore 30 days to remove the monument, but the chief justice's attorneys said they will ask a federal appeals court to allow it to remain in place during a lengthy appeals process that both sides expect could ultimately lead to the U. S. Supreme Court.
All Ten Commandments displays in public buildings do not violate the Constitution, Thompson wrote in his 96-page opinion, noting that Moses is depicted carrying two blank tablets on the East Portico of the U.S. Supreme Court building. But he stressed that Moore's monument so obviously promotes religion that it "crossed the . . . line between the permissible and impermissible" set out in the Establishment clause of the Constitution, which prohibits the government from making laws respecting the establishment of religion.
Thompson wrote that he inspected the 21/2-ton monument, which displays the Ten Commandments carved in granite, and was struck by "the sense of being in the presence of something not just valued and revered . . . but also holy and sacred."
Thompson's ruling plunges into a roiling debate between religious conservatives, who fear that God is being systematically excised from the public arena, and advocates for a brawny separation between church and state. The case falls into a long line of legal battles, ranging from the argument about the phrase "under God" in the Pledge of Allegiance to lawsuits over statues and plaques in statehouses, courtrooms and municipal buildings.
Moore's outspoken advocacy places him squarely in the center of this emotional and philosophical maelstrom, making the man known in Alabama as "the Ten Commandments Judge" a popular speaker at tent revivals and conferences from the Rockies to the Deep South. He gained fame before becoming chief justice by defying a court order to remove a handmade Ten Commandments plaque from his courtroom north of Birmingham.
Moore was sued by three Alabama attorneys -- represented by the America Civil Liberties Union, Americans United for Separation of Church and State, and the Southern Poverty Law Center -- who demanded that the monument be removed. Moore was represented by attorneys hired by Coral Ridge Ministries, a Florida-based evangelical group that he allowed to film the installation of the monument after his fellow justices had gone home for the evening.
Coral Ridge sold videotapes of the installation to raise money for Moore's defense. The group also used money from the video sales to pay for its ministry, making the installation "a joint venture" between Coral Ridge and Moore, wrote Thompson, who was appointed to the federal bench by President Jimmy Carter.
Moore testified that he installed the monument to express his belief that the Ten Commandments are the "moral foundation of American law" and his contention that they reflect "the sovereignty of God over the affairs of men."
He described a world order that places God at the top of a pyramid-like hierarchy, above the church and the state. Perhaps more importantly, Moore said he believes that the Judeo-Christian God is responsible for the system of freedom of religion in the United States.
Thompson was particularly piqued by Moore's assertion that other deities "do not allow for freedom of conscience" and that "Americans would not have such freedom if another God were placed over the church and state." Thompson said Moore's notions come "uncomfortably too close to the adoption of . . . a theocracy." Moore's ideas are "incorrect and religiously offensive," Thompson wrote.
Thompson, however, seemed to agree with Moore on one point, saying his opinion should not be construed as a statement that the Ten Commandments are not "one of the most important sources of American law."
Moore's lead attorney, Stephen Melchior, lambasted Thompson, saying the central themes of the federal judge's ruling is the work of someone "afraid of offending people," rather than an interpretation of the law.
"It's empty in so many respects," Melchior said of Thompson's opinion. "This is just the first gate. No sense in getting alarmed."
The Rev. Barry Lynn, executive director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State, which is based in Washington, cast the ruling as an eloquent statement of a fundamental American principle.
"It is not the job of government to single out one religious code and hold it up as the state's favorite. Promoting the Ten Commandments is a task for our houses of worship, not government officials," Lynn said. "It's high time Moore learned that the source of U.S. law is the Constitution, not the Bible."