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Alabamans Quiet in Commandments Clamor

August 26, 2003|Ken Ellingwood | Times Staff Writer

MONTGOMERY, Ala. — You won't find Mary Davis among the forest of television cameras and placard-waving demonstrators, but make no mistake -- she's all for Roy Moore and his Ten Commandments stand.

"That Ten Commandments sitting up there is not hurting anybody. It should sit there," Davis said. "In fact, it should be in every judge's office."

Davis sells seeds and fertilizer in a store across from the state court building where a Ten Commandments monument has produced a daily news spectacle and a debate over the separation of church and state. But she has yet to set foot on the courthouse plaza that for nearly a week has been crowded with Moore's supporters, many of whom have trooped in from places like Ohio, Kansas and Texas.

Largely unheard amid the clamor produced by the standoff in Alabama have been the residents of Montgomery themselves. Like Davis, most locals have steered clear of the plaza, though not of the water-cooler debate over what should be done with the 2 1/2-ton monument, installed two years ago in the rotunda of the state Judicial Building by Moore, Alabama's chief justice.

Many residents strongly support the presence of the Ten Commandments monument and applaud Moore, though they differ on whether he has gone too far by defying a federal court order to remove the monument from public view. While some see his refusal to obey the ruling as a righteous defense of principle, others say he is thumbing his nose at the law -- something no judge should condone.

"If he was ordered to do it, being that he's a judge, he should do it," said Deborah Brown, 40, who worked the sandwich counter Monday at a downtown deli. "If I go to his court and get a ticket and don't pay it, they're going to send me to jail."

But a co-worker, 27-year-old Cashada Brown, said the Ten Commandments are too sacred to hide in some back room. "These are God's laws. This is one nation under God," she said. "Even if you move it, you should put it somewhere in plain view."

A poll of Alabama residents last month found 77% in support of displaying the monument in the court building. But the Mobile (Ala.) Register-University of South Alabama poll found that half of respondents would disapprove if Moore defied a court order.

The poll was conducted following a decision in July by a three-judge panel of the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals, which upheld a lower court finding that the monument was an unconstitutional use of government facilities to promote religion.

Natalie Davis, a political science professor at Birmingham-Southern College, said the passion for the campaign to keep the Ten Commandments monument in place seems to have been imported from outside.

"I think this is just another case where there's a national game being played, and it's being played out in Alabama," she said.

As the debate raged on, the monument's defenders indicated they would seek the help of a federal court in Mobile to block removal. Moore, who was suspended Friday pending an ethics inquiry into his refusal to comply with the removal order, sought to rally his supporters Monday.

"We seem to be ashamed of standing up and speaking the truth, of acknowledging that we are created in the image of God and endowed by him with all rights of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness," Moore said.

It remained unclear when the monument would be moved. Attorneys who sued to have it removed told U.S. District Judge Myron H. Thompson on Friday that they would put on hold their effort to have Moore found in contempt of court for at least a week, in order to give court officials time to move the monument without the state being fined. The eight associate justices intervened Thursday, after Thompson's deadline elapsed, and ordered the building manager to remove the monument "as soon as practicable."

Moore is not the first prominent state official in Alabama to publicly defy federal authority. Forty years ago, Gov. George C. Wallace refused to comply with a federal order to desegregate the state's schools -- an episode that has been invoked regularly since Moore announced plans two weeks ago to ignore a federal court he said had no jurisdiction in the matter.

Moore's supporters, who liken their cause to the civil rights crusade of the 1960s, cringe at comparisons with Wallace and his states' rights, segregationist posture of 1963.

"The strongest comparison I can think of between George Wallace and Roy Moore is their accent," said the Rev. Rob Schenck, who heads the National Clergy Council and is one of the leaders of the Ten Commandments demonstrations.

Even Montgomery residents critical of Moore dismiss the Wallace parallels. "The times have changed," said Robert Jordan, a 67-year-old air-conditioning specialist.

Still, Jordan said Moore's obstinacy has "disgusted" him. "There's laws we're governed by. He should be governed by the same ones."

Some Montgomery residents said they wished the whole matter would go away -- one way or another. "I'm sick of it," said Cometric Blackman, a 26-year-old bank worker. "What's it really going to change?"

Alabama residents may not be as riveted because they are also being asked to pay attention to a statewide tax-reform referendum next month that would raise $1.2 billion. Despite the Ten Commandments drama, the tax measure is more likely to be the subject of bumper stickers and lawn signs -- not to mention articles in the state's newspapers.

"Judge Moore is having trouble getting a lot of space because there are a lot more important things being resolved here, like the future of the state," said Wayne Flynt, an Auburn University professor who specializes in Southern and Alabama history. "This is just sort of a side act in a very large circus."


Times researcher Rennie Sloan in Atlanta contributed to this report.

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