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New Effort Made to Halt Removal of Monument

Religious activists seek a federal restraining order to keep a display of the Ten Commandments. Alabama's attorney general is criticized.

August 27, 2003|Ken Ellingwood | Times Staff Writer

MONTGOMERY, Ala. — Religious activists trying to block the removal of a Ten Commandments monument from the state Judicial Building are pinning their hopes on a last-minute legal bid before a federal judge today.

The request for a temporary restraining order in U.S. District Court in Mobile is an effort to block the removal of the 2 1/2-ton monument from its site in the building's rotunda by the end of the week.

State officials have indicated that they intend to remove the monument by Friday to comply with an order from another federal judge, who ruled that the stone display violates the separation of church and state.

A lawsuit filed Monday in federal court in Mobile on behalf of a Christian radio talk show host and a pastor claims that removing the Ten Commandments monument violates constitutional protections of religious freedom.

The suit is the latest twist in the drama surrounding the monument, installed in the court building two years ago by the state's chief justice, Roy Moore.

U.S. District Judge Myron H. Thompson ruled against Moore in a lawsuit seeking removal of the monument, but the chief justice defied the removal order, leading to his suspension last week pending an ethics inquiry into his conduct in the case.

The standoff has drawn hundreds of Christian activists -- many from surrounding states -- to the court building, converting the plaza into a protest site and impromptu encampment.

On Tuesday, demonstrators focused their criticism on the state's attorney general, Bill Pryor, who has urged compliance and is seeking to have the Mobile case thrown out. Pryor represents the eight associate justices of the state Supreme Court, who last week voted to order the monument be taken away after Moore ignored a deadline for doing so.

"Bill Pryor is no friend of the 1st Amendment!" shouted the Rev. Patrick Mahoney, director of the Christian Defense Coalition, shortly before about 100 demonstrators made their way to Pryor's offices.

Foes of the monument have dismissed as frivolous the Mobile lawsuit and say it has little chance of blocking the monument's removal.

"Over and over again, Moore's supporters have offered up outlandish legal arguments to defend the justice's blatant promotion of religion in the state's Judicial Building," the Rev. Barry W. Lynn, executive director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State, said in a statement. "This lawsuit repeats those same losing arguments."

Last week, the U.S. Supreme Court refused to step in to keep the monument in place, and a federal appellate court upheld Thompson's ruling. Still, the showdown has made Moore a highly popular figure in this Bible Belt state, leading some to suggest that he could win election as governor or U.S. senator.

Moore's backers said they would fight on, even if the newest court maneuver failed.

"We've been here for two weeks in 100-degree heat and 90% humidity," said Troy Newman, the Sacramento-based director of Operation Rescue West. "That shows stick-to-it-iveness."

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