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Render Unto Caesar ...

June 14, 2003

Not for nothing does Alabama Chief Justice Roy Moore call himself "the Ten Commandments judge." As a trial judge in Etowah County, Moore hung a hand-carved version of the commandments in his courtroom. Soon after he won election to Alabama's Supreme Court in 2001, he decided that the court building needed something grander, so he had a 5,200-pound granite replica of the Ten Commandments hauled into the courthouse rotunda.

The judge wants the sculpture to stay, insisting it's a constitutionally permissible "acknowledgment of God as the source of the moral foundation of law." Others, including a federal district judge who ordered Moore to remove the sculpture last year, disagree, which is why the chief justice stood before a three-judge U.S. appeals panel June 4.

The federal judge saw the monument for what it is, an unconstitutional state establishment of religion. He agreed with three lawyers who filed suit against the display, arguing, as one put it, that "Alabama is establishing a particular kind of religion as the official religion of the state and that you're not treated the same if you don't share that faith."

Moore sees the fight in near-apocalyptic terms, predicting to supporters after the recent hearing that if he loses his appeal, "every mention of God will be stricken from your public life."

Hardly. U.S. currency and some state mottos, including those of South Dakota and Arizona, invoke God's name. In recent weeks, another three-judge panel -- from the same Montgomery federal appeals court before which Moore appeared -- upheld the use of a stylized picture of the commandments on the official seal of a Georgia court.

But none of this is the same as portraying, as the granite tablets do, that the Judeo-Christian God's law prevails in our courts.

It doesn't, as federal courts also have told protesters in West Union, Ohio. Judeo-Christian beliefs about right and wrong heavily influenced our founding principles and governing institutions. But America stands fast as a secular and tolerant nation. We, for example, allow civil marriages and divorce, 24/7 commerce and the eating of swine. But we forbid anyone to tell us to whom or for what we should pray or how. We don't let religion alone or religious zealots dictate our society of laws.

In a 1995 Colorado murder trial, some jurors did just that, deliberating with Bibles and invoking the Book of Leviticus -- including "eye for eye, tooth for tooth" -- to decide on the death penalty, never mind the nuanced laws Coloradans had enacted.

A Colorado judge overturned that sentence. But the appeals panel in Alabama needs to make it clear that this nation has endured because of its religious tolerance and secularism, not in spite of it.

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