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Alabama judge goes to court in religion battle : Roy Moore set off a controversy by displaying the Ten Commandments in his courtroom. The dispute may wind up in the Supreme Court.

AMERICAN ALBUM

January 11, 1996|EDITH STANLEY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

MONTGOMERY, Ala. — Roy Moore is a West Point graduate, a Vietnam War veteran, the only Republican circuit court judge in Etowah County--and a Christian.

For almost a year, he has been embroiled in a lawsuit pitting him and his supporters--those who view America as a Christian nation--against the ACLU and the plaintiffs they represent, who want Moore to leave his Christian beliefs outside the courthouse door.

It all started when Moore, 47, brought his handcrafted plaque of the Ten Commandments into the courtroom. Plaintiffs, defendants and lawyers who face the judge can hardly ignore it hanging on the wall over Moore's right shoulder. The judge, who says he is carrying on an Alabama tradition, also invites local Christian clergymen to invoke prayers at the beginning of each jury-organizing session.

At a time when communities nationwide are involved in issues of school prayer and religious expression in public places, those in Alabama who support Moore point to the lawsuit as further evidence of the undermining of religious freedom as protected under the First Amendment.

"It is time we in America wake up and realize what's happening and take a stand," Moore has said. "We're losing our liberties. . . . I firmly believe if we don't take a stand, it won't be long until the church and the people of God will be persecuted, as opposed to being restricted as they are now."

Moore's first hint that someone in Etowah County found his plaque offensive was a newspaper article placed anonymously on his bench. The story told of a similar plaque removed by court order from a courthouse in Cobb County, Ga. Then he received a copy of a letter sent by the American Civil Liberties Union of Alabama to the chief justice of the Alabama Supreme Court, asking that all courtroom prayers be stopped.

A suit was filed in March against Moore by the ACLU of Alabama on behalf of the Alabama Freethought Assn. and three Etowah County plaintiffs, asking for removal of the plaque and cessation of prayers in Moore's courtroom.

In early December, Moore countered by filing a suit against the ACLU, stating the group has infringed upon his First Amendment rights. He explained that it has been a "long-standing practice" to invite local pastors and laymen to open jury sessions, and that he gives jurors the opportunity to leave the room if they do not wish to pray.

Joel Sogol, attorney for the ACLU in Tuscaloosa, Ala., has a different take on the situation. "You ought not be subpoenaed to a location to be prayed over. If you don't show up, you get picked up by the sheriff. Or you can be directed, if you don't want to do this, to get your butt up and get out of the courtroom. And then you have to get up and walk out in front of everybody. People shouldn't have to put up with that in this country."

Many Alabamians have spoken out in support of Moore. At a rally in Gadsden shortly after the suit was filed, Gov. Forrest "Fob" James Jr. told a cheering crowd that as a West Point graduate and Vietnam War veteran, Moore was well qualified to know the price of preserving freedom. James pledged $85 an hour of state funds for Moore's defense--assistance that totaled about $40,000 before the judge stopped accepting the donation in December. The governor also had declared that if the federal courts tried to remove the plaque, he would send the National Guard to stand at the courthouse door. Then he sued the ACLU for suing Moore.

On a recent evening, the Rev. Mickey Kirkland, pastor of the Lighthouse Baptist Church in Montgomery, held a "celebration of freedom" for Moore. Kirkland began by working the congregation of more than 200 people into an almost fever pitch with his views on the ACLU. He told them that the organization is a defender of child pornography and favors the legalization of drugs and prostitution, as well as the burning of the U.S. flag in the name of free speech.

"The American Civil Liberties Union should change their name to the Anti-Christian Lawyers Union," he shouted.

Moore was next to the pulpit. "The first thing this country needs is God," he said to loud applause and shouts of "Amen."

Sogol said he was not surprised at the name-calling that goes on at Moore's rallies, but added he found it ironic that it would probably be his group they would turn to if they needed help.

"If a majority of folks in their area are Muslim and are going to ban Christian symbolism . . . they would say you can't do that. . . . Who are they going to look to but the ACLU?"

Since March, two federal judges in Alabama have heard the case against Moore. The first declared that the three plaintiffs had suffered no harm because of the judge's actions and therefore could not rightly sue. The second judge remanded the suit to state court. The case will be heard in Montgomery Circuit Court at a date yet to be determined.

Moore hopes the case will reach the U.S. Supreme Court, citing a list of high court decisions that uphold his right to hang the Ten Commandments and hold prayers in his courtroom.

Sogol also sees a possibility of the Supreme Court deciding the case, pointing out that "there is precedent in the federal circuits that indicates . . . prayer in court is unconstitutional, and there are all kinds of cases dealing with the Ten Commandments."

But, Moore said, "I have a right to acknowledge God. I want the end result to be complete freedom of religion in this country."

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