BIRMINGHAM, Ala. (ABP) — In facing down Roy Moore and winning, Richard Cohen admitted, he and other supporters of church-state separation won a legal battle but may have lost the public-relations war.
“The real battle here wasn't in the court of law, where we were comfortable,” said Cohen, president of the Southern Poverty Law Center in Montgomery, Ala. “It was in the court of public opinion.”
Cohen addressed supporters of the Baptist Joint Committee on Public Affairs June 25 at a luncheon held during the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship's general assembly in Birmingham, Ala.
Cohen's group and two other civil-rights organizations represented several Alabamians who successfully sued Moore, who was once chief justice of the Alabama Supreme Court. Two federal courts declared a monument to the Ten Commandments that Moore had placed in the rotunda of the Alabama Judicial Building in Montgomery an unconstitutional state endorsement of religion.
“We felt that it was a terrible thing to have the chief justice of Alabama, the chief judicial officer of our state, violating the Constitution,” Cohen said. “There was a very important principle at stake as well — one of religious freedom.”
In August, Moore defied a federal judge's order to remove the monument. The incident ultimately led to Moore losing his job for violating the state's judicial-ethics code. Moore had contended that the Alabama Constitution required him to “acknowledge God,” and that the monument was a proper way to do so. But the vast majority of legal scholars agreed that Moore's argument did not pass constitutional muster.
However, Cohen said, Moore's stance made him enormously popular among Alabamians and supporters of the Religious Right nationwide. Cohen noted that scientific polls at the conflict's height showed that 75 percent of Alabama residents supported Moore's position.
To laughter and loud sighs of disapproval from the audience, Cohen read excerpts of some of the hate mail he received as a result of the case. “Richard Cohen is a worthless pile of dung,” said one letter from a person who identified himself as Joseph Rose, according to a text Cohen provided to Associated Baptist Press. “I hope God strikes you dead. If you're ever in Florida, why don't you stop by. There's a few of your teeth (32) I want to smash down your throat. Have a nice day.”
Another, signed by Tony Collins, read, “I saw Richard Cohen on CNN news today. He was, as all haters of God do, spreading lies about the U.S Constitution by saying that venerable document demands the 'separtation of church and state.' Only a complete idiot, or an enemy of this once-great nation, would ever believe such drivel. … Judgment day is coming, and I will watch with glee as you crawl before Him and beg for His forgiveness for the lies you have spoken against Him! Have a miserable eternity, 'For there will be weeping, and gnashing of teeth.'”
Such vehemence compared with “the virtual silence” of religious people who supported the separation of church and state, Cohen said. Many Alabama religious leaders who shared his organization's views on the case were nonetheless afraid to anger their congregations by speaking out against Moore, he said.
Cohen thanked the Baptist Joint Committee and several dozen members of the Alabama clergy who filed a friend-of-the-court brief in support of the plaintiffs' argument. But he said that didn't result in the kinds of public demonstrations and outpourings of support that Moore's supporters showed.
“There were more Justice Moore supporters out there in the streets than there were Justice Moore opponents,” he said. Cohen said that caused “lazy” media to portray the battle simplistically — as between hundreds of Christian pro-Moore supporters who demonstrated at the courthouse and the handful of atheists who consistently showed up.
Because the battle for public opinion in favor of separation of church and state is so difficult, Cohen told the participants, “We need your help…. Even if Justice Moore is finished, the other Justice Moores of this world are not through.”
Participants at the luncheon also heard an update from Baptist Joint Committee staffers, including a run-down of the group's activities in the past year by BJC General Counsel Holly Hollman. She received applause when noting their success in the Moore case, but sounded a note of warning on a piece of legislation working its way through Congress.
The proposed “Houses of Worship Free Speech Restoration Act,” which would allow churches to endorse political candidates and parties while retaining their tax-exempt status, would endanger religion's prophetic role in being the conscience of the state, Hollman argued. “It's difficult for churches and houses of worship to maintain their independence and not be compromised by politicians and their partisan political goals,” she said.
James Dunn, the BJC's retired executive director, encouraged participants to support the newly announced First Freedoms Project. The project is an educational and fund-raising collaboration between BJC, Associated Baptist Press and the Baptists Today news journal. The three groups will provide churches with resource materials to promote religious liberty and freedom of the press, while encouraging churches to fund the three organizations with an annual offering or budget gift.
“Religious freedom and freedom of the press are indissolubly linked,” said Dunn, now a professor at the Divinity School at Wake Forest University. “If either … is lost, we go with it.”
Also at the meeting, members of the BJC's Religious Liberty Council conducted their annual business. The RLC is the Baptist Joint Committee's arm for individual donors. They re-elected Reginald McDonough of Tennessee and Sharon Felton of Texas as co-chairpersons, as well as re-electing David Rogers of Virginia as the group's secretary.
In addition, RLC members elected three new representatives of the group to the BJC's board, and re-elected three others. The three new representatives are Chris Chapman of North Carolina and Chris Lawson of Arkansas, who were both elected to three-year terms, and Michelle McClendon of South Carolina, who was elected to fill out the remaining two years on an unexpired term. Pat Anderson of Florida, Cynthia Holmes of Missouri and David Massengill of New York were re-elected to three-year terms.