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Thou shalt be removed

By NANCY GIBBS


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Alabama's Ten Commandments judge is tossed from office. Did he want this all along?

When the court of the Judiciary in Alabama tossed state supreme court Chief Justice Roy Moore out of office last week over his refusal to remove the Ten Commandments from his courthouse, you had to wonder whether his fondest wish had been granted.

After all, if his goal were simply to reaffirm the spiritual foundations of the law, he could have done that the way countless other judges and lawmakers have been doing it for decades. Sessions of Congress open with prayer, the Attorney General holds prayer meetings each morning in his office, the Supreme Court routinely asks that "God save the United States and this honorable court."

All that seems required for such conduct to persist unchallenged is not to call attention to it.

But if you are intent on convening a national debate about the proper place of God in public life, discretion is no virtue. Judge Moore has been exuberantly defying court orders regarding the Ten Commandments since his early days as a judge in Etowah County when he defended his right to display a homemade rosewood plaque in his courtroom.

That crusade helped him get elected as Alabama's chief justice in 2000, so it should have surprised no one when he wheeled the 5,280-lb. monument of the Commandments into the courthouse rotunda in a midnight ceremony and then forced a showdown by refusing to remove it.

When the federal court's deadline to remove the monument from the lobby ran out in August, Moore's fellow state supreme court justices had no choice but to suspend him.

To the fury of thousands of protesters, the monument was heaved into storage and Moore ordered to stand trial for ethics violations. Though the chief justice was described as risking his career in defense of his beliefs, it may turn out that the greater risk was taken by the nine-member panel of judges, lawyers and citizens from both parties who last week voted unanimously to oust him.

Three out of four Alabamans support Moore's stance, including passionate followers who liken the judge to everyone from Martin Luther King Jr. to Moses. "You've got a handpicked panel of judges removing someone from office who was elected by an overwhelming majority," said Terry Butts, one of Moore's attorneys. "If the people had the chance to vote on Roy Moore, the majority of them would put him back in office."

To the thousands who have supported Moore, picketed and protested and prayed for him, it is his willingness to force the issue that sets him apart. "I believe history will look favorably upon Judge Roy Moore for resisting an ideology that is hell-bent on stripping every vestige of faith from the public square," predicts Gary Bauer, chairman of the Campaign for Working Families. "If the people of California could recall Gray Davis over blackouts and car taxes, men and women of faith should do no less in defense of the Ten Commandments, the Pledge of Allegiance and the sanctity of traditional marriage."

But it is precisely Moore's flamboyant tactics that have made some fellow conservative Christians concerned he could damage the larger cause. The U.S. Supreme Court declined to hear the case and some who support his overall goal but reject his methods think that is just as well.

"A chief justice should understand that the rule of law requires obedience even to orders a government official disagrees with," argues Terry Eastland, a conservative Christian intellectual and publisher of the Weekly Standard. "The interesting question is why Moore disobeyed the order when resignation was a compelling alternative. After all, resignation would have served the demands of conscience and the rule of law."

Moore, 56, a West Point grad who writes patriotic poetry, says he is not sure what he will do next. "I just lost my job yesterday. I haven't had time to breathe. I'm just trying to relax and get oriented." In his case, this involved six national morning shows, some radio and print interviews and perhaps a glance at the book offers and speaking invitations that are steadily rolling in.

Reported by Paige Bowers/Atlanta, Elaine Shannon/ Washington and Frank Sikora/Birmingham



Copyright © 2003 Time Inc.

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