WASHINGTON (ABP) — The U.S. Supreme Court has dealt what would appear to be the death blow to Alabama Chief Justice Roy Moore's legal crusade to display a Ten Commandments monument in a state building.
On Nov. 3 the justices declined, without comment, to hear Moore's appeal of a lower federal court's ruling against the monument.
By choosing not to hear the case, the justices will not be clarifying the rules for such monuments on government property.
The 5,280-lb. granite monument — engraved with the Protestant King James translation of the biblical commandments — was removed from its spot at the center of the Alabama state judicial building's rotunda in August, over Moore's objections. Moore had attempted to defy earlier federal court orders to remove the monument, but was overruled by his fellow justices on the Alabama Supreme Court.
In November, U.S. District Judge Myron Thompson declared the monument a violation of the Constitution's ban on government endorsement of religion.
Moore had the monument placed in the building's rotunda in July 2001, shortly after he was elected to the state's highest judicial post. Moore had campaigned as the “Ten Commandments Judge” after gaining notoriety through earlier court battles over display of the Commandments in his courtroom while he was an Etowah County magistrate.
In July, a panel of the Atlanta-based 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals unanimously upheld Thompson's ruling. Thompson then issued the order to remove the monument.
The U.S. Supreme Court's decision to let the lower court's ruling stand means that federal rules on government display of Ten Commandments monuments will remain unclear. Lower federal courts have allowed some Ten Commandments displays but refused others.
The Supreme Court building itself has a depiction of Moses holding two tablets representing the Commandments in a frieze on the south wall of its courtroom. However, that display and others that lower courts have held constitutional depict other historic sources of law alongside the Ten Commandments.
Moore had insisted on placing the Commandments by themselves. He repeatedly and publicly asserted that God's law was supreme and should not be displayed on equal footing with “man-made” documents.
Moore had also argued that the federal courts had no authority to remove the monument, which he viewed as fulfilling his duty — as a state officer under the Alabama Constitution — to “acknowledge God.”
“I think that ultimately this is the kind of decision that enhances religious liberty for everyone,” said Barry Lynn, executive director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State. Lynn's organization and two other civil-rights groups sued Moore to get the monument removed.
Lynn said the decision protects religious freedom “because today's religious majority could be a minority tomorrow, and they need protecting against government promotion of any favored religion.”
But a Moore supporter said the decision was symptomatic of what he views as a renegade federal judiciary.
“We just think it's outrageous that they don't even want to hear the arguments from Justice Moore and his attorneys,” said Jim Backlin, director of legislative affairs for the Christian Coalition.
Backlin added he thinks the justices' refusal to hear the case “is indicative of what the federal judges are doing in general in this country — going against the wishes of the American people on such issues as the Pledge of Allegiance, the Ten Commandments.”
Religious Right supporters in Congress have introduced a bill, sponsored by Rep. Cliff Stearns (R-Fla.), to require the posting of the Commandments in the House and Senate chambers. Backlin encouraged support of that, as well as “any constitutional amendment that supports any display of the Ten Commandments in the public square.”
But Lynn said his organization would challenge any such law if it is enacted. “What's a more quintessential law respecting an establishment of religion than Congress putting up a religious monument in a public space they control?” he asked.
Leaders of a Baptist group who filed a friend-of-the-court brief opposing Moore said the court's decision not to hear the case isn't surprising. “As both lower-court decisions clearly and forcefully held, the facts presented an unmistakable constitutional violation,” said Holly Hollman, general counsel for the Washington-based Baptist Joint Committee on Public Affairs.
Hollman's organization filed the brief in the original case in Thompson's court. More than 40 Alabama clergy members who opposed Moore's action as a violation of church-state separation signed onto it.
The decision means that Moore's case has reached a dead end. However, his woes may not be over yet. His defiance of the orders of higher courts earned Moore a suspension from his duties by the state's Judicial Ethics Commission.
He faces a trial, set to begin Nov. 12, by the state's Court of the Judiciary. If they rule against him, Moore could be removed from the bench permanently, or suspended from his job until the court chooses to reinstate him.