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Interview With Jerry Falwell, Richard Cohen

Aired August 27, 2003 - 20:33   ET


PAULA ZAHN, CNN ANCHOR: The Ten Commandments are no longer on public display at the Alabama State Judicial Building. Workers today in the capital, Montgomery, removed a two-and-a-half-ton granite monument bearing the Commandments from the building's rotunda. A federal judge had ordered the monument's removal after ruling that its placement violates the Constitution's ban against government endorsement of religious doctrine. The man who placed the structure there, suspended Alabama Chief Justice Roy Moore, called the move a sad day in our country.
We're going to hear from both sides of the controversy now. Joining us from Lynchburg, Virginia, the Reverend Jerry Falwell, renowned evangelist and founder and chancellor of Liberty University. And from Montgomery, Richard Cohen, general counsel for the Southern Poverty Law Center.

God to see both of you. Welcome.


ZAHN: So Reverend Falwell, I don't know whether you watched the monument being taken out on live television this morning. At any point of the day when you did see the video, what was it that went through your mind?

REV. JERRY FALWELL, CHANCELLOR, LIBERTY UNIVERSITY: Well, I certainly expected that to happen, but I rather expected that they would move it from the entire courthouse if the issue was being on public property and that somehow the Ten Commandments would contaminate the court. I was surprised they left it in the building.

But the reality is that no one can stand against the might of the federal government. And Myron Thompson (ph) and then the appellate court had spoken. Somebody asked if I would have disobeyed that federal order. Probably not. I would have maybe moved it to the church lawn next door and filed for an appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court.

But Judge Moore, this was his conviction, this was his bailiwick. And he's a great man, he's a constitutional scholar. I think he will eventually prevail. He may be a U.S. senator or governor from Alabama first, but he's a hero down there. And I think he ought to be.

ZAHN: Richard Cohen, let's talk a little bit about the chief justice strategy. There have been a number of observers who have noted that he actually had a pretty solid strategy. And that was by basically communicating to the public at the end of the day that he stood for god, and everybody who was against him was against god. Do you think it was that simplistic?

COHEN: I do, Paula. And I think some of his supporters did a good job kind of conveying that message. And I think it's sad thing because our victory in the courts wasn't a victory against religion, it was a victory for religious freedom in this country.

Religion is strong in this country because the government keeps its hands off of it. Government shouldn't promote religion. We're better off without it. And unfortunately, I think that message has gotten a bit confused in this case.

ZAHN: Well, let's talk to Reverend Falwell about what he thinks is the appropriate position that god should hold in public life.

FALWELL: Well, Paula, as a student of American history and the religious heritage of this country, back to the Mayflower compact and right on through 43 presidents, there's no denying this nation and its judicial system were built upon the Judeo-Christian ethic, that is, principles from the old and new testaments of the bible. That doesn't mean that because we were founded a nation under god that we denied to atheists, to Hindus, to Muslims who've come along later.

I think that, for example, if I were to go to a Muslim state and attempt to preach the gospel or put a copy of the New Testament somewhere I would probably be shot. But at the same time in America, I believe if they want to put the Koran in a public place, in this case, the Ten Commandments, or the Declaration of Independence, or you name it, very frankly, it is horrendous to think that in the last year a federal court has ruled the Pledge of Allegiance to the flag unconstitutional because of two words "under god."

And a federal judge last month kicked the Boy Scouts out of a public park in San Diego because they happened not to have atheists scout masters and so on. It has become -- you know a federal court approves sodomy and throws out the Ten Commandments, all within 45 days. It's a little idea of a federal judiciary run amok, run away, and needing to be towed in.

ZAHN: Rich Cohen, Reverend Falwell just had an awful lot to say in that answer. Why don't you take a stab at responding to two of the major points, which is, basically the federal court's discomfort with anything related to religion or anything that can be construed as an endorsement of a particular religion?

COHEN: Well, I disagree with Reverend Falwell in very, very fundamental ways. The judge here really was promoting his own brand of religion. The court asked his lawyer, would it be OK for the judge to put a sign over the bench that said, "What would Jesus do?" And his lawyer said, "Yes, that would be perfectly fine under our system of government."

And I think it shouldn't be that way, and so did the federal courts that heard this. Again, the principle here is so important. It's the same principle that upholds Reverend Falwell's right to worship as he pleases, upholds my right to worship as I please. And that is that the government has just got to stay neutral when it comes to religion matters. It can't endorse particular religious faiths.

ZAHN: Reverend Falwell, finally, I'm sure you have seen some editorial comments in newspapers across the country suggesting that maybe part of the motivation for the chief justice's actions had to do with the fact that the right feels like they have lost a number of court battles, as you just mentioned in that 45-day period.

FALWELL: Well, there is no question that in the last generation, about 40 years, beginning the early '60s, there's been a concerted effort. The ACLU, Americans United for Separation of Church and State, and add to that Hollywood and much of the national media, have been on a concerted campaign to throw god out of the public square of this country to make this a secular nation.

We are not a secular nation. We are a nation under god. Any student of American history who takes their history seriously and honestly knows that.

And that doesn't mean that we defy anybody else. I have no problem with Muslim nations. I know when I go there I have to keep my mouth shut. In America, just the opposite.

In a Christian nation, a Judeo-Christian nation we allow everyone their free speech. But to be hostile towards Christianity and Judaism, which is what the case is right now in this country, is unthinkable, unacceptable. There needs to be some impeachment of judges like Napoleon Jones (ph) and Myron Thompson (ph) and a few others, and there needs to also be some constitutional amendments to establish liberties and freedoms for all Americans, even people of faith, who happen to be about 90 percent of the people of this country.

ZAHN: Reverend Falwell, I don't think you had the benefit of seeing Richard Cohen on your split screen, but he's been shaking his head no, no, no, basically the last 35 seconds of your argument there..

FALWELL: Oh, of course.

ZAHN: Richard Cohen, you get the last word.

COHEN: You know, Paula, we're not just a Christian nation, as Reverend Falwell would like it.

FALWELL: I said a Judeo-Christian nation.

COHEN: We're a nation of many faiths. We're not just a Judeo- Christian nation, we are a nation of many faiths. And all of us need to cherish those...

FALWELL: We were founded as a Judeo-Christian nation that has brought all the other faiths here with kindness, including atheism. But by no means did they have anything to do with building this country, nor should they take it away from us. ZAHN: All right. Richard Cohen, I've got to give you 15 more seconds and then we're going to have to say good night to both of you.

COHEN: I -- Reverend Falwell has a very exclusive notion of whose rights are worth protecting in this country.

FALWELL: Everyone's are.

COHEN: I think everyone's religion freedoms are worth protecting. And the state can't promote a particular religion to the exclusion of others.

ZAHN: Well, Reverend Falwell and Richard Cohen, we would love to have the two of you back. You really sparked an interesting conversation. I'd love to hear more from both of you.

COHEN: Thank you, Paula.

ZAHN: Thank you for your time tonight.


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