The New York Times

August 23, 2003

Judge Suspended for Defying Court on Ten Commandments

Associated Press

ONTGOMERY, Ala., Aug. 22 — Chief Justice Roy Moore was suspended from the bench today for defying a federal court order to remove a 5,280-pound Ten Commandments monument he had installed in the Alabama Supreme Court building.

Chief Justice Moore, who used the Ten Commandments issue to rise from obscurity in rural Alabama to the highest judgeship in the state, will face a trial by the Court of the Judiciary of Alabama, which acted today and will rule if he should lose his job permanently.

Meanwhile, the titanic slab of granite remained in the rotunda and continued to be a rallying point for hundreds of evangelical Christians. Some marched with Bibles, some brandished cardboard cutouts of the Ten Commandments tablets and others sang out, "I shall not be moved!"

Chief Justice Moore made no public appearances today. But he said in a television interview before his suspension was announced, "My dispute is with the federal courts who have intruded into state affairs, and we are taking this matter to the United States Supreme Court." The United States Supreme Court, however, has already rejected one of his appeals, and legal analysts say they do not expect it to side with Chief Justice Moore.

His critics praised the suspension. "It's perfectly appropriate because he openly and flagrantly violated a federal court order," said Morris Dees, chief trial counsel for the Southern Poverty Law Center, one of the civil liberties groups that argued that Chief Justice Moore had violated constitutional guarantees of the separation of church and state. "There's no question about it. This is the beginning of the end."

Not so, say others who predict the suspension will add to the swelling popularity of Chief Justice Moore, a Republican elected to the post. "This will only increase his martyrdom," William Stewart, a political science professor at the University of Alabama, said. "It shows how far he is willing to go for the cause."

Starting today, Chief Justice Moore is suspended, with pay, pending the outcome of a trial held by the Alabama Court of the Judiciary. That court may actually convene in the courtroom he presided over.

The charge stems from an ethics complaint that Chief Justice Moore failed to "observe high standards of conduct" and "respect and comply with the law." The four judges and three lawyers on the Judicial Court are appointed by various legal organizations. The last time the court removed a judge was April 1999. Chief Justice Moore has 30 days to respond officially.

The chief justice ran afoul of the law by refusing to move his monument, known by some as Roy's Rock, by the midnight deadline on Wednesday. The next day the other eight justices on the court voted unanimously to overrule him and move the monument. The federal judge presiding over the case threatened to fine Chief Justice Moore $5,000 for every day the monument remained in public view. Since the chief justice was being sued in his official capacity, the State of Alabama, which is hundreds of millions of dollars in debt, was on the hook.

Today, before the suspension was announced, Judge Myron H. Thompson of Federal District Court decided to withhold fines or a contempt of court finding if the monument was moved within a week or so, said Ayesha Khan, legal director for Americans United for Separation of Church and State. Chief Justice Moore has said he will not try to block the removal of the monument.

Officials have been cautious about provoking the increasing number of Chief Justice Moore's supporters who have turned the courthouse steps into a campground, and a revival. Today, many huddled under the gargantuan pillars of the courthouse singing hymns and praying.

In the past, he has said that when he hung a rosewood plaque of the Ten Commandments above his bench in Gadsden, Ala., 11 years ago, he was not looking for a crusade, but a decoration. Back then, few outside his patch of northeastern Alabama had heard of him.

Chief Justice Moore, a Baptist, grew up broke, the son of a jackhammer man. He attended the United States Military Academy at West Point, where he graduated 640th out of a class of 800. After he served in Vietnam, he became a prosecutor. During a 1978 murder trial, he sliced his suit with a Buck knife while trying to act out a murder.

Three years after he hung the rosewood Ten Commandments plaque above his bench, the American Civil Liberties Union sued, but Chief Justice Moore won that case.

The Ten Commandments issue sent his name recognition into that layer of the stratosphere that few judges this side of Lance Ito ever reach. But it did not help his legal acumen, said Jim Hedgspeth, district attorney in Gadsden. "To me he didn't even know the law," Mr. Hedgspeth said. "Most of the time he would get the idea that the law books around him were there for decoration, not for use."

In 2000, Mr. Moore ran for Alabama chief justice, on the slogan "Roy Moore: Still the Ten Commandments Judge." He won easily. In July 2001, without the permission of the other justices, he installed the Ten Commandments monument in the State Supreme Court. He rejected requests to include a statue of an atom or a copy of the Koran. His argument was that American law was based on Judeo-Christian beliefs. His display, he said, was a statement about the moral underpinning of law, not an advancement of one religion over another.

In November, Judge Thompson ruled that the monument was "nothing less than an obtrusive year-round religious display." He gave Chief Justice Moore, who appealed the ruling, until Wednesday to move it.

Observers say Chief Justice Moore's genius is the way he framed the issue. "He made it sound like he stood for God and everybody who opposed him was against God," Shelby Foote, the Memphis historian, said. "For a lot of people with simple minds, that makes perfect sense. And once he started grabbing headlines, he just didn't want to let go."

August 25, 2003

A Monument to Religion, or Law? (6 Letters)

To the Editor:

Re "Judge Suspended for Defying Court on Ten Commandments" (news article, Aug. 23):

Chief Justice Roy Moore violated clear United States Supreme Court precedent by placing a Ten Commandments monument in the lobby of the Alabama Supreme Court.

He then refused to obey a federal court order to remove the display, defending his stance by saying, "To do my duty, I must obey God."

The duty of a judge is not to obey God but to follow the law, which he took an oath to uphold. If Chief Justice Moore finds that his duties as a judge conflict with his religious beliefs, he can resolve the conflict in favor of his higher calling by resigning from his secular responsibilities.

But he has no business being a judge if he is willing to subjugate the law to his own personal convictions, regardless of how deeply those convictions are held.

New York, Aug. 23, 2003

To the Editor:

I have been observing the comments regarding the Ten Commandments monument placed in the Alabama State Supreme Court lobby (news article, Aug. 23).

Why can the federal court say anything about the Ten Commandments being in a state building? Every courtroom has a Bible to swear in witnesses and juries. The Bible certainly has the Ten Commandments in it.

Fate, Tex., Aug. 23, 2003

To the Editor:

Re "Judge Suspended for Defying Court on Ten Commandments" (news article, Aug. 23): With so many of our public buildings adorned with various images and symbols, how do we decide whether an image is religious? If a symbol or image is determined to be religious, does that automatically mean that it violates the Constitution by promoting a religious establishment or church?

If someone started a religious sect that worshiped Abraham Lincoln as a "god," would we then be required to tear down the Lincoln Memorial?

This controversy is really a battle about political power, not religious freedom or the law.

Honolulu, Aug. 23, 2003

To the Editor:

Would that Chief Justice Roy Moore of the Alabama Supreme Court had spent more time reading the Constitution he claims that his God inspired and observing the current and historical examples of violent chaos attributable to government in the name of fanatical religious certainty (news article, Aug. 23).

He might then have built the Ten Commandments monument with his own money and put it at his own church, and he might then be happy that his government did not interfere with his chosen exercise of religion.

Chicago, Aug. 23, 2003

To the Editor:

Are the supporters of Chief Justice Roy Moore of the Alabama Supreme Court willing to place Koranic verses on tablets alongside the Ten Commandments (news article, Aug. 23)? How about Buddhist teachings or Taoist liturgy?

Bloomington, Minn., Aug. 23, 2003

To the Editor:

Re "Judge Suspended for Defying Court on Ten Commandments" (news article, Aug. 23):

Explicit government references to the primacy of biblical religion, while once commonplace in America, were never really in accord with the Constitution. Now such references threaten the pluralism on which our democracy depends.

But Chief Justice Roy Moore of the Alabama Supreme Court and his supporters rightly recognize that there is no such thing as pure neutrality. Every public expression even the expression of emptiness represents someone's value system.

To call that value system "secular" misses the point: it still makes a claim of ultimacy, by asserting that it is primary and all other beliefs are necessarily subordinate.

The paradox of American democracy is that the ultimacy of religious beliefs for individuals can be protected only when no religious belief is given public privilege.

Hanover, N.H., Aug. 23, 2003

The writer is college chaplain at Dartmouth College.

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