Roy Moore and Bill Pryor Grapple Over Ten Commandments Issue
MONTGOMERY, Ala. — It's unusual to have a state's chief justice roll a two-and-one-half ton monument of the Ten Commandments to the state courthouse.
It's also unusual to have an attorney general prosecuting a chief justice.
But all of this has has happened in Alabama, and it continues to happen.
After Chief Justice Roy Moore commissioned a large monument of the Ten Commandments to be placed in the lobby of the state courthouse in Montgomery, Ala., he was sued in federal court for First Amendment violations.
The federal court, both on the district and appeals levels, ruled against Moore, and the U.S. Supreme Court refused to hear the case. He was ordered to remove the monument to some other place, but he refused.
The state ethics board held a hearing at which Bill Pryor, the state's attorney general, acted as prosecutor and found him in violation of state standards. Moore was removed from the bench.
The case got even more interesting last month.
Moore has appealed his removal to the state Supreme Court. All of the court's members subsequently recused themselves from the case, and a court was appointed by the governor through the random drawing of names.
The reason for Moore's refusal? He was sworn to uphold the rule of law, he told the Register, and the law does not forbid the display of the Ten Commandments in a public, taxpayer-funded building. (Indeed, the Supreme Court displays them.)
What is also strange about the case is that both Pryor and Moore are considered conservative Christians — Pryor a Catholic and Moore a Baptist. Both have had their share of confrontations with other branches of the government (Pryor's nomination to the Federal Court of Appeals has been held up because of his pro-life positions. He would not comment on those proceedings for the Register.)
Not long ago, Pryor had defended Moore when Moore was a district judge and had a carving of the Ten Commandments in his courtroom. But that has all changed with the federal court order. The two are now very much at odds and both are citing Scripture to support their side. Moore claims Pryor's change is politically motivated because of the stalled federal nomination, a charge Pryor flatly denies.
“This has nothing to do with that,” he said. “What it does have to do with is a nine-member federal court unanimously ruling against him” and all the other courts doing the same as well. Pryor described Moore's attitude as, “He's the only one who's right; everyone else is wrong.”
“Christ said we have a duty to render unto Caesar what is Caesar's,” Pryor told the Register. “How we decorate Caesar's courthouse is up to Caesar.”
Moore should be upholding the rule of law, Pryor argued, not defying a judge's order because he doesn't agree with it. By comparison, would a police officer refuse to read a suspect the Miranda warning because he disagreed with the Supreme Court's decision in Miranda v. Arizona?
“Is he going to follow his own view and risk not getting a conviction on a technicality?” Pryor asked.
Pryor noted that other Ten Commandments cases have been ruled in favor of those wanting to keep the monument. Their approach, he said, has been to talk about them as part of the heritage of lawmaking in the Western world.
Moore has a problem with that.
“They're saying the right way to go about it is to deny God and make it historical and secular,” he said. “I'm saying the right way to go about it is to acknowledge God and his sovereignty.”
“You can't affirm the state's authority over God and confront [the state] at the same time” when it doesn't acknowledge God's authority, he said. “It's like Daniel, or Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego,” he added, who said God had authority over the state and were willing to pay with their lives for it.
Moore is unhappy with how the media have reported on his case. One item that particularly rankled him was the report that he moved the monument into the courthouse in the middle of the night. It was not stealth, he said, but the failure of a company to deliver the monument by 6 p.m.
The next day, he said, he had an unveiling ceremony with media present.
But Moore is also unhappy with Pryor and considers the attorney general nearly traitorous.
What the two men do agree on is that the courts have largely turned into un-elected legislative bodies.
“Courts are to interpret the law,” Moore said, “not make the law.”
And Pryor called himself “a vociferous critic of judicial activism.” How one confronts that is where they differ.
Stephen Krason, a professor of political science and legal studies at Franciscan University of Steub-enville and president of the Society of Catholic Social Scientists, commented that a century ago, people “would not have given a second thought to a judge putting the Ten Commandments into a courtroom.”
But in the post-World War II period, “The Supreme Court has been trying to secularize the law and the country.”
Perhaps a more productive way to confront the issue, Krason said, is for the branches of government to work the way they're supposed to in the system of checks and balances. Congress is not helpless before the courts, Krason argues. In fact, he calls it a “first among equals.”
“The legislature is pre-eminent in a republic,” he said.
Article III of the Constitution, for instance, gives Congress the authority to establish — and disestablish — the lower courts. And besides that, “Congress controls the purse strings,” he added.
Additionally, the decisions any court makes are not “self-enforcing,” Krason said, and are binding only on the two parties that appear before it. The courts do not “have the power of the purse or the sword.”
Theoretically, then, Krason argued, a president could decide he would not enforce a court's decision “if some egregious and unconstitutional judicial position were taken.”
While this is not a mainstream view, Krason said, it is something that has to be considered, since “we're deferring all these cultural questions to the courts.”
Thomas A. Szyszkiewicz writes from Altura, Minnesota.
- January 18-24, 2004