Spring 2003, Vol. 6, No. 1

Table of Contents
Spring 2003

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Articles in this issue

In the South:
The GOP Gets Religion

What Christian Right?

The Undetected Tide

Church Notes

The New Governing Party

The Bible in Memphis

The Decalogue in Montgomery


A World of Hurt

James in the Box

O Brother, Who Art Thou?


What Would Jesus Drive?


In the South:
The Decalogue in Montgomery
By Michael Evans

Alabama state Judge Roy Moore made a name for himself during the 1990s by making a homemade plaque of the Ten Commandments a prominent fixture in his Etowah County courtroom. A federal court suit by the American Civil Liberties Union aimed at forcing him to remove the plaque elevated Moore from obscurity into the big leagues of church-state controversy.

When the ACLU won a judgment against Moore in 1995, Moore refused to comply. The judge immediately gained the support of then-Governor Fob James Jr., and basked in immense popularity in Alabama. Indeed, the media began to compare Moore’s refusal to abide by the court’s decision with George Wallace’s refusal to integrate Alabama’s schools during the 1960s. 

Building on the popularity of his position in Alabama, in 2000 Moore rode the Ten Commandments controversy into election as chief justice of the Alabama Supreme Court. “Like Wallace, Moore has capitalized politically on his obstinacy,” reported Tom Brazaitis in the Cleveland Plain Dealer on November 24, “already milking the controversy over the Ten Commandments to move from an obscure bench in Etowah County to the State’s highest court.” 

On the night of July 31, 2002 Moore kicked the controversy up a notch. After hours, workers following his orders installed a massive five-ton monument of the Ten Commandments designed by Moore himself in the rotunda of the State Judicial Building in Montgomery. Litigation followed immediately, and, on November 18, Federal District Court Judge Myron Thompson ordered the removal of the statue within 30 days because it violated the establishment clause of the First Amendment. 

“The monument is nothing less than an obtrusive year-round religious display intended to proselytize in behalf of a particular religion, the Chief Justice’s religion,” the New York Times quoted the decision on November 19.

As expected, Moore once again refused to follow the court order, vowing to appeal the decision immediately. A November 19 Anniston Star editorial explained that  “Judge Moore and his supporters—who have already started calling this a ‘liberal’ ruling from a ‘liberal’ judge—feel strongly about this one and will appeal the ruling.” 

And, indeed, the press coverage of the most recent controversy surrounding Judge Moore tended to be quite similar. Few thought that the monument was anything other than a blatant violation of the establishment clause of the First Amendment (as well as the Fourteenth Amendment clause regarding separation of church and state on the state level.) “This call is easy,” the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel editorialized. “The Constitution practically has a circle with a slash over a picture of a shrine. A government clearly can’t erect one, particularly in a public place.” 

Several editorials claimed that Moore’s defense of the monument seemed duplicitous. The Florence (Ala.) Times-Daily complained on November 24 that “even Moore himself can’t agree on his reasons for the Ten Commandments fight.” When defending in public the display in the courtroom, Moore argued the historical significance of the Ten Commandments to the foundation of American law justified the monument. But, as the Times-Daily observed, “in front of his supporters, however, Moore endorsed the monument as representative of his religious beliefs.”  

The national media wasn’t happy about either argument. While most press coverage acknowledged the historical importance of the Commandments, few thought that history had any relevance to the Moore case. As the Boston Globe’s Cathy Young explained, “The ‘It’s about tradition’ argument would carry more weight if the Ten Commandments had been installed at the Alabama State Judicial Building as part of a larger display honoring the great lawgivers and legal codes of the past.” 

The Alabama press, however, had a slightly different perspective. While many local journalists criticized Moore’s refusal to obey Thompson’s ruling, they were extremely circumspect in their comments about the placement of the Ten Commandments monument in the courthouse. A Birmingham News editorial on November 20, for example, sought a middle ground. “First things first. The Ten Commandments are an important part of the basis for law, and there is nothing inappropriate about displaying them in the context of that history, even in government buildings.” 

This sort of journalistic restraint was probably a response to local public opinion. Jeffrey Biggs of the Andulusia Star News noted on November 19 that in one poll 90 percent of Alabama respondents said they didn’t feel the monument should be removed from the courthouse. 

Despite their sensitivity to local views, most Alabamian journalists—and especially editorial writers—eventually condemned Moore’s behavior. Many of them, however, conveyed the message with an undertone of embarrassment and perhaps even fatalism. “Thompson’s ruling, unfortunately, won’t end the controversy,” the Birmingham News editorialized. “No matter who prevails, much energy will be expended on this fight, energy that is sorely needed to address other pressing problems in Alabama.”

The Tuscaloosa News agreed, “No matter how much responsible Alabamians may wish otherwise, this case will not go away quietly.”

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