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Interview With Morris Dees

Aired August 27, 2003 - 09:49   ET


BILL HEMMER, CNN ANCHOR: Right now on the phone, Morris Dees, founder, director of the Southern Poverty Law Center. He conducted a tough examination of Judge Moore in court.
Mr. Dees, good morning to you. What do you make of the pictures you're watching live with us?

MORRIS DEES, SOUTHERN POVERTY LAW CENTER: Well, I have a little sympathy for the fellows trying to move this monument, because they don't want to damage the floor. It's not a difficult moving job, but it's a very expensive rotunda and marble floors.

And it took Judge Moore in the middle of the night without approval of the other eight judges some eight hours and with a crew to move it in here. So I have a lot of sympathy for the guys trying to move it.

HEMMER: Is it true you are still staying out of public view for fear threats to your life?

DEES: Well, there have been threats but that always happens. And, no, I'm not staying out of public view. I'll be going to work in a few minutes.

And -- but you, know, we have had some people come to Montgomery -- in Alabama who are not from this area, some who have been part of the violent anti-abortion movement that have been involved in that type of activity.

So you know we have to be cautious. They made some very serious death threats against federal Judge Thompson in this case.

HEMMER: There is a hearing at 3:00 local time in Alabama, down in Mobile. If you consider that hearing today, can anything stop the physical movement we're watching now?

DEES: Not really. The hearing -- the case filed in Mobile, first of all, filed in the wrong area of the state, it should have been file here. And it has no basis.

Just a publicity stunt saying that by removing this we're putting a kind of secular humanism God in its place -- in other words, nothing -- and therefore, that violates the rights of these people who filed the thing claiming that they're Christians and they need a Christian god here. It's the wildest lawsuit I've heard of in a long time.

HEMMER: Go back to court and your cross-examination of Justice Moore, Judge Moore. What was the argument, that you believe, put your winning argument over the top?

DEES: Well I think Judge Moore was -- made it very simple for us. He said that he placed this monument in here to acknowledge a sovereignty of God over the affairs of men, and that's pretty much it.

And he said that all the little quotes out of the bottom, that things that have the word "God" in them by various historical figures, weren't there for the purpose of making it historical but to show that the Ten Commandments sitting on top of the monument was recognized as a supreme law the land.

The federal judge, and it was the Bush appointee on the court of appeals I think, made the best observation. He said that if you take Judge Moore's argument to its logical conclusion, that the state official has the right to acknowledge God this way, that he could put a ten-foot cross on top of the Alabama supreme court building, or behind each bench of every court in the state, a slogan, "What would Jesus do?" in this case?

And Judge Moore's lawyers agreed. Judge Moore's lawyers agreed, speaking for him, that a ten-foot cross on top of the Alabama supreme court building would not violate the separation of church and state.

HEMMER: Well broaden the argument here a little bit. If you take out this monument down in Montgomery, who's to say the next case can't be directed to the U.S. Supreme Court and any reference to God in the highest court in the country?

DEES: Well that's the argument that some of Moore's people might would like to make, but it's not a valid argument whatsoever.

HEMMER: And why is that? What is the distinction? What is difference?

DEES: Well, the courts have said these cases have to be decided on the factual basis of each case. In the U.S. Supreme Court there is a series of statutes around the chamber of Justinian, Hammurabi, all ancient law givers that make up the basis of American law and English common law.

And Moses happens to be one of those 18-foot high sculptures and Moses is holding a very tiny Ten Commandments with nothing but numbers on it. That's putting religion in a historical context. You can teach religion in a classroom, but you can't have the Christian prayer given every morning...

HEMMER: So you're saying, then, if it's exclusive, it's illegal?

DEES: Well, pretty much what's the courts have said, unless like in some case, over in Georgia, there's a tiny, about half-inch -- half-inch now, a little thing of the Ten Commandments on the county seal. It had been there since the 1800s.

And the court says, First of all, it's not noticed, it's not in your face. And it really was a seal trying to put some legalism in the language of people who make respect to the courts where people didn't -- weren't educated. And that was the same 11th Circuit Court that knocked this down.

I think you have to look at these things. Judge Moore intended for this to be a -- basically a state recognition of he said Christianity, because the Ten Commandments he chose was the Ten Commandments not out of the old testament -- I mean they're Christian version of the Ten Commandments, not the Judeo version.

HEMMER: So then, Mr. Dees, if you put a Torah in the same judicial building in Montgomery, do you still win the case?

DEES: Well, I think you probably would, if you put a Torah and that was all and it was put there with the intent -- with the statement in prefaces that Judge Moore put here.

One of tests that the U.S. Supreme Court has applied consistently is not only what was the purpose of putting it here, but the effect. And Judge Moore -- Judge Moore ran for office as a Ten Commandments judge. He made enormous amount of public statements that he was putting this here to acknowledge the superiority and supremacy of God.

That's quite different than placing some small item in a court building that with no purpose and attention. But I would think that a Torah or a creche. That U.S. Supreme Court has struck down putting Christmas creches.

But if you mix those with other religious symbols, Buddhist, Torahs, all kinds of other things, then it become a religious display, not something dealing with promoting of one religion over another.

SOLEDAD O'BRIEN, CNN ANCHOR: Mr. Dees, this is Soledad O'Brien in New York. Question for you about what has been threatened as a national boycott. Earlier we heard some of the protesters saying that they would call for a national boycott on any moving company or any construction workers who supported in moving this monument and a little bit later they said that they will be sorry they cooperated. What's your take on that?

DEES: Well you know, that's rather punitive. Sounds very un- Christian to me. These workers are just employees asked to do a job. And to be punitive like that -- first of all, I don't think the boycott would have any effect. I think it's some local moving company here and I don't think people will hold it against them.

You know, I think, you know, you have to look at it this way. These protesters, mostly from not are Alabama people, are going against be the attorney general, the governor, both elected Republicans, and eight members of the supreme court, seven of which are Republicans.

Justice Moore yesterday said that these men are not godly as he is. Well, you know, when you start questioning the religious views of these conservative people -- many men and women of those people are leaders in their churches in this state -- that turns people off, in our state. And I don't think that Judge Moore's going to have very much of a political career in the state of Alabama. O'BRIEN: Judge Moore has been suspended from his post, at least temporarily. Do you expect after all of this dies down, if indeed this monument in the next hours or so is removed to another part of the building, all of this sort of goes out of the headlines? Do you think he'll be reinstated to his post?

DEES: No, absolutely not. I was really impressed with the courage of the nine members of the judicial inquiry committee, many of them very conservative people, because what Judge Moore has done here is say, I choose which laws I want to obey. And if this court and he, Judge Moore, wants their laws obeyed, they can't pick and choose.

He tried to compare himself to Dr. Martin Luther King, which is a bogus comparison. Dr. King did not do the Selma to Montgomery march because his leader blocked march until he could hear legal arguments. Finally they heard them and the march was allowed.

It's more akin to George Wallace who just simply defied the federal court as a demagogue for the purpose of advancing his political career. and that's all Judge Moore's doing here.

This is totally of his own making. The case is on appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court. All he had to do was just cover this monument, or move it into a non-public area. You know just because this monument's going into another room doesn't mean people can come in and see it. The federal court said it has to be into a non-public, non-viewing area until it's determined what will ultimately happen to it.

O'BRIEN: Morris Dees with the southern poverty law center. Thanks for your time. Appreciate it.


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