Short History of the Battle Over the Ten Commandments in Alabama

Published: Aug. 1, 2001 at 11:03 PM CDT|Updated: Sep. 29, 2003 at 3:10 AM CDT
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The controversy over the Ten Commandments thrust Justice Roy Moore into the national spotlight years ago. He's been the focus of praise and criticism since 1992 - the year he placed a wood carving of the Commandments in his Etowah County courtroom.

In 1994-1995 lawsuits and counter suits were filed by then-Governor Fob James, Judge Moore, and the ACLU of Alabama. Moore said the ACLU was trampling on his First Amendment rights and was trying to establish the religion of "secular humanism" in the state.

The American Civil Liberties Union of Alabama filed a counter-suit to stop Moore's religious practices saying Moore's display of religious symbols and inviting clergy to lead the court in prayer were a violation of the 1st and 14th Amendments to the constitutions of the United States and Alabama.

From the very beginning, Roy Moore had the backing of most religious organizations. In 1997, Montgomery church bells rang out in his support. Governor Fob James, speaking during a church service, was in favor of Moore's display and said, "To strip the Ten Commandments from the courtroom is a violation of the United States Constitution."

The then-governor at other times threatened to use the "force of arms" if anyone tried to remove Ten Commandments or judge-initiated prayer from an Alabama courtroom.

In March 1997, Judge Moore told reporters, "There is a higher law that we're bound to recognize. It's my duty to recognize that."

Moore's biggest show of support came when thousands gathered on the capitol steps also in early 1997. People came from as far away as California angry that the wood carving of the Commandments was ruled unconstitutional by Montgomery Judge Charles Price. In November,1997, Price said the Commandments would have to come down unless Moore included other historical documents in the display. Moore appealed the decision to the state Supreme Court, which allowed the Commandments to remain on display until the case was heard.

In 1998 the Alabama Supreme Court dismissed lawsuits, filed by then-Governor Fob James and the ACLU. Governor James had asked the court to allow the Commandments to stay permanently on display in Moore's Gadsden courtroom. The ACLU argued that the state's Chief Justice had the authority to order a halt to courtroom prayers and order the removal of the Ten Commandments.

Justice Ralph Cook wrote, "We will not allow the judiciary of this state to become a political foil or a sounding board for topics of temporary interest."

The Supreme Court's decisions allowed Moore to continue displaying the Ten Commandments behind his bench and conducting prayers prior to jury sessions. The dismissal of the cases on technicalities meant constitutional issues were not tackled by the court.

The ACLU said they feared no one would be willing to come forward and challenge Moore again because of all the publicity surrounding the case. Joe Sogol, a Tuscaloosa attorney who filed one of the original suits against Moore said, "Nobody got anything. We're all back to where we were when we began"

By the time the U.S. Congress passed a resolution commending Moore's determination, he had sparked a national movement. And in the end, he was successful and the Commandments stayed. "It's quite an interest that has mushroomed across the country," said Moore in November, 2000.

In November 2000, Moore rode the wave of support for his position to political victory and was elected chief justice of the Alabama Supreme Court. A statement from the Christian Family Association issued before another rally in support of the judge proclaimed, "Now that Judge Moore has been elected we will be focusing on our next statewide project involving the public display of the Ten Commandments."

Judge Moore declined at that time to comment on his future plans for the Commandments. On Wednesday, August 1st, 2001 everyone got his comments when a monument displaying the Ten Commandments and some historical quotes was put on display in the Alabama Supreme Court.

In October, 2001 the first of two lawsuits was filed asking that the monument be removed.

In November of 2002, Judge Myron Thompson issued a ruling that the monument is unconstitutional and violates the separation of church and state.

In December 2002, Moore appealed that ruling to the 11th U.S. Circuit Court which upheld Thompson's ruling.

"The rule of law does require that every person obey judicial orders when all available means of appealing them have been exhausted.  The chief justice of a state supreme court, of all people should be expected to abide by that principle.  We do expect that if he is unable to have the district court's order overturned through the usual appellate process, when the time comes Chief Justice Moore will obey that order.  If necessary, the court order will be enforced.  The rule of law will prevail."

In August 2003, Judge Thompson stood by his original ruling and order the monument be removed from the public spaces of the judicial building by August 20, 2003. The judge said the state could be fined up to $5,000 a day if the monument was not removed.

When Moore refused to follow the court order,  his fellow justices had the monument removed instead. Moore was then suspended from his position and now awaits a trial by the court of the judiciary. He is also appealing the monument rulings to the U.S. Supreme Court.