Why a Catholic Hero Removed the Ten Commandments

There is a great irony in the now much-publicized opposition to the nomination of Alabama Attorney General William Pryor Jr. to be a federal judge on the 11th Circuit Court.

Opponents of the nomination, such as New York Democrat Sen. Charles Schumer, have contended that Pryor would be unable to apply the law impartially because of his “deeply held beliefs”—code language for saying that Pryor is a Catholic who agrees with the teachings of the Church. As a Catholic, Pryor believes abortion is a grave moral wrong, while as a student of the law he has explicitly stated the U.S. Supreme Court's Roe v. Wade decision legalizing abortion is “the worst abomination of constitutional law in our history.”

Yet in recent days this same Alabama Attorney General William Pryor found himself in charge of having removed from the rotunda of the Alabama Supreme Court building a multiple-ton monument to the Ten Commandments, which Alabama Chief Justice Roy Moore had placed there.

The removal was promptly carried out in accordance with a federal court order, even though Pryor does not personally agree that a display of the Ten Commandments on public property is either unlawful or constitutes any kind of an “establishment” of religion, contrary to the First Amendment to the Constitution. Still, there was a court order, which the attorney general of Alabama was duty-bound to carry out.

It is not clear whether the display of the Ten Commandments in the Alabama Supreme Court rotunda was actually illegal. Nor is it clear what law Moore was violating in setting up his display. The reporting on the issue, though extensive, has simply not addressed this issue.

There are, in fact, hundreds if not thousands of displays of the Ten Commandments on public property in the United States at the present time, including a frieze depicting Moses with the tablets of the law on the U.S. Supreme Court building itself in Washington, D.C. Some of these displays have been specifically upheld by courts; others have been banned by yet other courts. The law is simply not clear in the matter.

The way Moore set up his particular display, however, was almost bound to provoke a court challenge: The Alabama chief justice had this particular 5,280-pound monument placed in the rotunda in the dead of night (though with a Christian broadcasting camera crew on hand to record the event for whatever purposes). The whole thing seems to have been planned as a deliberate in-your-face kind of gesture. Moreover, the purpose of the display was specifically declared to be an “acknowledgement of God” as the source of all justice.

Even though U.S. coins still proclaim “In God We Trust” and the Pledge of Allegiance by federal law includes the phrase “Under God”—and just as the U.S. Congress as well as the U.S. Supreme Court itself begins its sessions with prayer—it is equally true that powerful secularist forces in the United States have been quite successful for the past generation in questioning and sometimes even eliminating references to religion and to religious symbolism in American public life.

Given the current state of the federal judiciary, for example, along with much of today's current case law concerning the “establishment of religion,” it was surely inevitable that Moore's gesture would be challenged in federal court, and it was successfully challenged: In due course the federal court order was handed down ordering the removal of the monument.

At that point Pryor found himself obliged to carry out the removal of the display that he personally did not believe was illegal. Nevertheless, a federal court order had been issued in the matter, and if the rule of law is to be upheld in our democracy then federal court orders must be obeyed (leaving the reform of an overweening and oppressive federal judiciary to other means, one of which could be the addition to its ranks of a man of integrity such as Pryor).

Pryor did not hesitate. “The rule of law,” he announced at a press conference, “means that no person, including the chief justice of Alabama, is above the law.”

For his pains he was picketed by a group of Christians calling for his resignation. It is not at all clear henceforth how he will fare in future Alabama elections if his federal judgeship does not go through. He had twice been elected by large margins and was considered an ally of Moore, supported by the same electoral base. Yet he showed himself willing to sacrifice possible future political advantage for the sake of principle.

It is true that many Christians sincerely believed and believe that Pryor should have defied the court order as Moore did. And yes, it is equally true that in cases of conscience Christians are obliged to “obey God rather than men” (Acts 5:29). Instances where that could prove to be true might even be multiplying as our society moves further and further away from its Judeo-Christian origins.

But it does not seem that a grandstanding enterprise such as Moore's—which was almost bound to play into the hands of the secularists—constitutes a real instance where that ancient scriptural imperative applies. Certainly greater respect for God and his law badly needs to be restored in America, but there are surely other and better ways to do that in a democratic society than by defying federal court orders and thus helping to undermine the rule of law.

Thus Pryor made the right decision. More than that, he also proved beyond any shadow of a doubt the falsity and baselessness of the charge of Schumer and his allies that he would be unable as a federal judge to apply the law impartially because of the his “deeply held beliefs.”

On the contrary, he proved he was prepared to apply the law come what may as far as he personally was concerned—in short, he rather dramatically proved his critics wrong.

He had already shown this in any case before his critics even mounted the charge against him. For in spite of his declared opposition to legalized abortion, he had earlier instructed Alabama district attorneys to interpret Alabama's 1997 partial-birth abortion ban quite narrowly in accordance with U.S. Supreme Court criteria, which he undoubtedly did not agree with personally. But again, he felt obliged to follow the law.

Will any of this blunt or remove the opposition to his nomination to be a federal judge? Unlikely on the record, since Schumer and company charged him with not being able to follow the law after he had already proved that he would follow the law. As many observers have noted all along, however, what is really happening here is that a de facto religious test is being applied to prevent Pryor's confirmation as a federal judge.

Kenneth D. Whitehead represented the Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights at the U.S. Senate hearing on the nomination of Alabama

Attorney General William Pryor Jr. to a federal judgeship.