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Carnival in the Court

August 19, 2003

Alabama Chief Justice Roy Moore insists that he will not remove a 2-ton monument listing the Ten Commandments from his courthouse. Two federal courts have now declared that the huge sculpture that Moore installed two years ago violates the U.S. Constitution. Moore has wedged himself between his granite rock and a hard legal place and, like the defiant Alabama Gov. George Wallace almost half a century ago, he leaves the federal court no choice but to penalize the state's taxpayers for one official's intransigence.

Last month, a federal appeals court gave Moore until Wednesday to remove the monument. A three-judge panel from this conservative-leaning court unanimously agreed that the monument promotes some religious beliefs to the exclusion of others and that its presence in the court building's rotunda unambiguously violates the Constitution's prohibition on government establishment of religion. Moore says he sees a Judeo-Christian God "as the source of law and liberty," and that's that.

The long-running carnival the chief justice has created is about to become costly for Alabama taxpayers. The federal court said it would fine the state of Alabama $5,000 each day for the first week the monument stays, and double the fine each following week. The court should also begin contempt proceedings against the judge.

But Moore, who won his elected seat as the "Ten Commandments Judge," is enjoying the evangelical sideshow outside the Montgomery courthouse too much to fold the tent. Last week, he announced he would defy the court order, and over the weekend he glad-handed the faithful who gathered to cheer him on. Moore's supporters have planned another rally for this evening, with some threatening civil disobedience if anyone tries to remove the tablets.

Alabama Atty. Gen. William H. Pryor, nominated to the circuit court that ordered the monument removed, opposes the order. So does Gov. Bob Riley, who says there's "nothing wrong or unconstitutional about a public display of the Ten Commandments."

Judeo-Christian beliefs about right and wrong have influenced laws, but the United States endures as a secular nation -- people worship as they choose, or not at all. A court that embraces one religious view by allowing commandments in the courthouse or a Christmas creche in City Hall diminishes citizens with different beliefs.

Only Alabama's voters can replace Moore, but perhaps his colleagues on the state Supreme Court, who also were served with copies of the federal order, understand better than he does why they must obey it.

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