Intersection of Life and Faith

Are the Ten Commandments Unconstitutional?

  • by Jay C. Grelen Copyright Christianity Today International
  • 1997 1 May
Are the Ten Commandments Unconstitutional?

It's an unimposing little plaque, this wooden wall hanging that has caused such a ruckus in a northeast Alabama courtroom.

But one man may go to jail over it.

Roy Moore wasn't even a judge back in 1980 when he got the idea to make his own Ten Commandments plaque after seeing one his mother had purchased at a home party. He cut two pieces of wood to look like two stone tablets and with a wood-burning tool inscribed the Commandments.

The tablets are hinged at the center, and on the back, an artist painted the scene of Moses bringing the Commandments down from Mount Sinai.

Moore was a deputy district attorney in those days, with no notion of the commotion his handiwork would stir.

But he has carried the plaque with him, from its spot on his wall at home to a spot over his right shoulder in his Etowah County courtroom, where he has presided as judge since 1992.

That's where the trouble began?with the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and the Alabama Free Thought Association, which sued to force Judge Moore to remove the plaque from his courtroom. And for good measure, they threw into their lawsuit a demand that Judge Moore stop opening his court sessions with a pastor-led prayer.

Both sides appealed. The Alabama Supreme Court granted Judge Moore a stay on the prayer decision and will consider the ruling in the coming months.

On top of that, Scott Borden, a lesbian mother, complained that Judge Moore, because of his overt Christianity, could not render a fair decision in her child custody battle with her husband, and she demanded that he step down.

So far, Judge Moore has been able to stave off loss with appeals. Last fall, in Montgomery, Alabama's capital, 15th Circuit Court Judge Charles Price ruled Judge Moore could keep the 10 Commandments.

In February 1997, Judge Price, at the request of the ACLU traveled to Gadsden to see the plaque hanging on Judge Moore's wall and reversed his decision, ruling that the plaque was overtly religious and must be removed within ten days.

That's when Judge Moore's story went national. Alabama Governor Fob James said that if Judge Price wanted to remove the Ten Commandments, he'd have to go through the National Guard troops to do it. Bill Pryor, Alabama Attorney General, immediately appealed that order to the state Supreme Court which ordered a stay.

The only case in which Judge Moore is on the losing end at the moment is in the case of the lesbian mother. In December 1996, the Alabama Court of Civil Appeals sided with Scott Borden, agreeing that because Judge Moore is so outspoken in his Christian faith, he should step down from her case against her husband, James Christopher Borden. Judge Moore already had refused two requests to relinquish the divorce case. The ruling is being appealed.

Judge Moore isn't moved by threats of legal action. He contends the battle is a battle not simply for his right to acknowledge God, but for the right of the nation to acknowledge its Creator in government. It's a battle for every citizen's right to express that belief.

Do to him what you will, Judge Moore says, he's not taking down the Ten Commandments, and he won't stop the courtroom prayers. Write the negative editorials. Throw him in jail. Remove him from the bench. Take his retirement and health insurance.

"I've vowed I'm not going to stop opening with prayer. I've said I'm not going to take down the 10 Commandments.

"The freedom of conscience is the most valuable freedom we've got," he says. "Before this is over, I'm going to start speaking out. When they've got you down on the mat, it's time to start speaking out."

Humble start, hard work

Roy Moore has made a habit of speaking out. His early life, and his military career, prepared him for the pummeling he takes for his candor.

The son of an itinerant construction worker, he grew up poor in Etowah County and lots of other places. "We lived in houses that did not have bathrooms," he says. "We washed in tubs. I wiped tables for my lunch at school. We wore hand-me-down clothes. I had to roll up the sleeves on the shirts because the sleeves were too short."

After high school, Moore won an appointment to West Point. "Daddy borrowed $300 to get me there."

He graduated in 1969, received airborne training at Fort Benning, Georgia, then shipped out to Germany with the 2nd Battalion, 51st Mechanized Infantry. From there he went to Vietnam, where he was a company commander and captain in the military police.

His military service over, Moore attended the University of Alabama's law school. In 1977, fresh out of graduate school, he was appointed Etowah County's first full-time deputy district attorney.

During this time he carved the plaque that would thrust him into this fight sixteen years later.

In 1982, Moore made his first run for judge in the 16th Judicial Circuit. He was defeated in a nasty election that ended with several judges presenting a complaint against Moore to the Alabama Supreme Court; they didn't like the assertions in his campaign ads that "money and political influence controlled many decisions in the court system."

The Supreme Court ruled that under the First Amendment Moore had the right to criticize the court system; but he was tired and disillusioned. So with $300 in his pocket, he headed to Galveston, Texas, to study full-contact karate with a world champion. For nine months, he worked as a construction supervisor on roofing crews repairing hurricane damaged apartment buildings and learned karate.

Then he went to Australia, where he spent nine months as a real-life cowboy, riding a horse and mustering (the Australian term for "rounding up") cattle.

Returning to Gadsden, Moore went to work in the office of another lawyer. Single for 39 years, he married in 1985; he and his wife have four children.

In 1992, he was appointed to fill the unexpired term of an expired judge. Two years later he won election to a full six-year term.

The rest may become Constitutional history.

One nation under God

It's a comma, a lowly comma, a little squiggle of punctuation, a period with a tail.

But Judge Roy Moore's arguments about God and government hang by the hook of that grammatical pause.

The comma in question is the one the U.S. Congress chose to leave out of the Pledge of Allegiance. The missing comma demonstrates the intent of the leaders of our nation, Judge Moore says, all the way back to Philadelphia in 1776.

Here's the story: In 1954, Congress added the words "under God" to the pledge. Lawmakers purposely left out any pause between the phrases "one nation" and "under God."

Those four words combined, explains the judge, demonstrate our leaders' belief that an acknowledgment of God is a bedrock of our nation's government and law.

Moore is a passionate and articulate defender of his faith, spouting from memory voluminous passages of Scripture and law in everyday conversations and formal speeches.

In his office, he knows right where to pull a book or journal to support his assertions. So, in discussing the pledge, he pulls out the legislative history of the 1954 act that added "under God" to the pledge. "They said they wanted to alert the consciousness of the American people to the true meaning of our country and its form of government," he says.

"But more importantly, they wanted the children of the land, in their daily recitation of the pledge in school, to be impressed with a true understanding of our life and its origins. ? They made a big point about where to put the comma. They said that there should be no comma between 'one nation' and 'under God'; it should be one phrase, because this would indicate the fundamental and basic characterization of the nation.

"I think we are greatly deceived and have been greatly misled to believe that we can't, as a state, acknowledge the existence of God," he says. "The evidence is irrefutable. Our forefathers certainly understood the First Amendment. They wrote it." And they acknowledged God.

The fight of his life

It's a fine line he draws, and Judge Moore may have the chance to draw it all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court.

Religion and an acknowledgment of God are not equal concepts, he says. To acknowledge God as Creator of all is not religion. Of this, Judge Moore is sure: To our forefathers, religion was the duty owed our Creator and the manner of discharging it.

"The acknowledgment of God is found clearly in history and in law and in the earlier opinions of the U.S. Supreme Court. What they've done by their re-interpretation of God as religion is to establish another religion?secular humanism. They've taken God out of our lives.

"It's time to do what the Scripture says to do," he says, referring to Ephesians 6:10. "It's time to stand up.

"This is asking the ultimate question. Are we, or are we not, under God and God's law? Is this, or is this not, a nation founded on a belief in God?''

Moore's adversaries not only refuse to acknowledge God, they don't even want to talk about God, or social issues in the context of God.

"Some groups want to remove me from the judiciary so we don't ask those fundamental questions about God," he says. "There's hard times ahead, I'll tell you that."

Championing the First Amendment

In the case of the lesbian mother, Judge Moore's fairness has been challenged because he has spoken out against homosexuality. "Is it against the law to talk about the law? I've argued I should stay on the case because there's no reason to excuse myself. There is a presupposition in this society that you can't speak out against homosexuality. But it's against the law. In Alabama, it's grounds for divorce.''

For Moore, the First Amendment has been twisted. "We've turned the Constitution and the First Amendment from a shield to protect us into a sword to deprive us of our civil and religious rights," he explains. "What was meant to protect our freedom to acknowledge Almighty God has been turned to prevent us as public officials from acknowledging God.

"Separation of church and state was never meant to separate God from government. That is a misconception. It is adverse to history. It is adverse to law. It is adverse to early Supreme Court opinions."

Preparing to do battle over his plaque, Moore tracked down an original 200-year-old set of William Blackstone's commentaries on English law, bought it, had it copied and bound so he could study it thoroughly. "I have done extensive research on this," he says. "I mean extensive."

His research resulted in an 89-page affidavit that cites everything from recent U.S. Supreme Court rulings to English law and Blackstone. "You say, 'Wait a minute, Judge, you're talking about 1700. What's that got to do with today?' Well," he says, "the Supreme Court regularly quotes Blackstone as the source of our laws."

Judge Moore throws out a statistic: Since 1795, the Supreme Court of the United States has referred to Blackstone 273 times. Nearly 21 percent of those references have come in the last six years, the most recent in July 1996. "My reference to Blackstone," he says, "is a reference to the foundations of American law."

Court decisions have wrongly redefined religion to make religion synonymous with God, he says. "A public acknowledgment of God is not now, nor has it ever been, a violation of the First Amendment of the United States Constitution."

Hero to regular folk

Given that his income is at risk in this fight, it's ironic that the name of Judge Moore's favorite restaurant in Gadsden is "The Poor House."

But down at The Poor House, where the judge often lunches on turnip greens and cornbread, he is something of a folk hero.

Johnnie Mae Pinson, a lunch-time cook, has filled one of the restaurant's bulletin boards with newspaper and magazine clippings with big, bold headlines trumpeting the news about Moore's fight for freedom.

Attracting attention and support from around the country, Moore has spoken extensively?from small church groups to gatherings like D. James Kennedy's "Reclaiming America" conference in Fort Lauderdale and the Christian Coalition in Washington, D.C.

In Alabama, Governor Fob James and U.S. Senator Jeff Sessions have publicly supported the judge.

At the back of his chambers, in his private restroom, Judge Moore has piled six large plastic bags containing thousands of letters of support. Some of the notes are on greeting cards. Some are typed. Some envelopes contain petitions signed by hundreds of people.

In his chambers, on the wall to the right of his desk, hangs a framed resolution of support from both houses of the Alabama legislature.

Resting on a shelf is a small handmade gift?another plaque of the Ten Commandments.

On the back are the signatures of dozens of school kids thanking him for his stand. He takes the plaque down, the better to see it.

He knows he might lose this fight, that somewhere along the route of appeals (which he expects will go to the U.S. Supreme Court), a judge or panel of judges will order him to remove the Ten Commandments from his courtroom.

"Look at that," he says, his voice softening as he shows the names of the youngsters who signed the back of the little plaque. "I don't want to say what I am going to do if I lose. But I can't take the Ten Commandments down."

Judge Moore knows his beliefs?and his livelihood?are on the line.

"I anticipate a contempt citation," he says. "They could incarcerate me. They could take my job. I am faced with the ultimate question: 'Choose you this day whom you will serve.'

"It's a hard thing to violate an order, but I have no choice. It's a small price to pay for a great freedom. I couldn't live with myself if I succumbed to the world view and turned my back on the Creator. I don't rely on government. I rely on God."

?Want to show your support? Write the judge at the following address: Judge Roy Moore Defense Fund, PO Box 8222, Gadsden, AL 35902. ?Editors

Copyright © 1997 by the author or Christianity Today International/Today's Christian magazine (formerly Christian Reader).
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