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Commandments Appeal Fails

The Supreme Court refuses to intervene hours before a judicial deadline for removal of a religious display from a state building.

August 21, 2003|David G. Savage | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — The U.S. Supreme Court refused Wednesday to block a federal judge's ruling that a Ten Commandments monument be removed from the rotunda of Alabama's state Judicial Building in Montgomery.

The one-line order dismissing an emergency appeal from Alabama Chief Justice Roy Moore came hours before a midnight deadline set by U.S. District Judge Myron H. Thompson for removing the 4-foot-tall, 5,300-pound monument. If officials do not remove it, the state faces a $5,000-a-day fine for defying the judge's order.

Lawyers who sued to force the removal of the monument said they planned to file a contempt-of-court petition against Moore that Thompson may consider in a conference call Friday, setting the stage for fines, Associated Press reported.

After the Supreme Court acted, officers in Montgomery handcuffed about 20 Moore supporters who had kneeled and stood at the monument in the building's rotunda and refused to leave, according to Associated Press. It was unclear whether any of them would face charges.

While the Ten Commandments may be kept on display in an Alabama justice's private chambers, they must be removed from the public areas of the state courthouse, according to the order issued earlier this month by Thompson.

Moore, who was elected three years ago as Alabama's chief justice, has defied two rules of constitutional law.

The first holds that the government may not promote or endorse religion by prominently displaying religious symbols in public buildings.

The second holds that state officials must obey the commands of federal law.

In his emergency appeal, Moore maintained that a federal judge may not "abridge the right of the people [of Alabama], through their elected representative -- the Chief Justice -- to acknowledge God as indispensable to the administration of justice. The 10th Amendment reserves to the people of the State of Alabama the right to constitute their state government under God."

Thompson rejected Moore's views on religion and the state, saying they "come uncomfortably close to the adoption of ... a theocracy."

And the U.S. 11th Circuit Court of Appeals in Atlanta had rejected Moore's claim that Alabama state officials may defy the U.S. Constitution, saying that view had been rejected during the 1960s and the struggle over racial integration.

None of the Supreme Court justices signaled a willingness to take up either claim on an emergency basis. However, once the case runs its course, the high court remains free to hear the issue later if Moore appeals a final decision that goes against him.

In 1980, the Supreme Court struck down a Kentucky law that called for posting the Ten Commandments in all school classrooms. The commandments "concern the religious duties of believers," the court said, and, therefore, amount to official promotion of religion.

In 1989, the high court also ordered Pittsburgh city officials to remove a holiday season depiction of Christ's birth from a City Hall building.

Two years ago, the court also let stand a judge's order that required the city of Elkhart, Ind., to remove a monument to the Ten Commandments from in front of City Hall. All these rulings grew out of the 1st Amendment's ban on laws "respecting an establishment of religion."

Moore, who campaigned in Alabama as the "Ten Commandments Judge," said these decisions were mistaken interpretations of the 1st Amendment. He said the Ten Commandments depicted "the moral foundation of the law" and reflected "the sovereignty of God over the affairs of men."

In August 2001, without consulting his colleagues, Moore had the granite monument installed. Lawyers for the American Civil Liberties Union sued to have it removed.

Among his arguments, Moore said the U.S. Supreme Court building displays the Ten Commandments.

On the walls above the courtroom are stone sculpted friezes that depict ancient figures. One of the four walls depicts "great lawgivers of history."

According to the curator's office, "Moses is depicted holding two overlapping tablets, written in Hebrew, representing the Ten Commandments. Partially visible from behind Moses' beard are Commandments 6 through 10."

On the wall directly above the justices, two prominent male figures are shown with a pillar that has Roman numerals from 1 to 10.

Although some people have suggested that these represent the Ten Commandments, Adolph A. Weinman, who sculpted the work in the mid-1930s, wrote that the Roman numerals represented the 10 articles of the Bill of Rights.

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