Alabama’s Conspiracy Of Ignorance Continues (May 1997)

Alabama’s latest claim to fame is Roy Moore, a Baptist judge who is currently appealing a court order to discontinue prayer before session and to remove the wooden depiction of the Ten Commandments from the wall behind his bench. Since the Alabama Freethought Association was a driving force in having the prayer and Commandments removed in the first place, members were very curious about the “Save the Ten Commandments Rally” held April 12 by Moore’s supporters on the steps of the capitol building in Montgomery, Alabama.

After determining that a response was necessary, several members of the Birmingham Freethought Society (a new student freethought group located at the University of Alabama at Birmingham) began to plan a counter-demonstration. In a few days, the decision was final: freethinkers would picket the rally.

As making the signs and organizing carpools did not take very long, the main frustration in the preparation of the event was waiting for it to happen. Calls supposedly were bombarding Montgomery every day by people asking for directions to the rally, some from as far as California. The Christian Coalition, a major sponsor of the event, released their estimate of attendance: 50,000 people. Combined with earlier reports that local militia groups were threatening to “Take care of the ACLU,” freethinkers who planned to attend had a lot on their minds.

On the day of the event, several protesters left early to escort patients at a Montgomery abortion clinic. It seems that the clinic thought that some of the “50,000” would arrive early and choose to kill some time by harassing women–and they were right.

While their numbers were not staggering (20-30 people), the antichoice protesters were certainly strange enough to warrant mention. One man informed us, “[Rush Limbaugh] is too left for us . . .” and “When we get in control, we’re going to try every one of you, and I will serve as your judge . . . “

At 1 p.m. the event began. Surprised (and happy, I might add) to see that only 3-4,000 people had actually shown up for the event, we had no problem moving to a spot very near the pulpit (oops . . . that was supposed to say “the steps of the capitol building”) and directly behind the media. Donning our signs, we immediately gained media attention–and the attention of the police. A large police officer very politely attempted to bluff us into leaving, threatening that he would have our peaceful and quiet protest removed by force. When we asked him why we couldn’t stand on public property, he made an annoyed face, mumbled something, and left.

Besides being interviewed by everyone from National Public Radio to The New York Times, we all got a thorough tongue-lashing from nearby loving Christians. Some wanted to debate with us; others just wanted to make sure that we knew we were not welcome. Many just wanted an opportunity to be on television.

Although we were too busy to pay full attention to the event itself, with guests such as Fob James (our illustrious governor and supporter of Moore), Ralph Reed (Executive Director of the Christian Coalition and scary enough to make small children cry), the “Bikers for Jesus,” and Judge Moore himself, one can imagine the virtual cornucopia of close-mindedness that existed there. The phrase “Anti-American Civil Liberties Union” was used over and over again, and almost every speaker called for the impeachment of judges who upheld decisions in the ACLU’s favor. Confederate flags were everywhere (although I have no idea why), and one man held a sign that said “Burn in Hell,” above a list of names including Martin McAfferty, a prominent member of the Montgomery ACLU, and Ellen DeGeneres, the star of ABC’s sitcom “Ellen.”

The rally was not without humor, though. One man dressed up as Moses and performed a rather comical skit about the writing of the Ten Commandments and a speaker actually quoted Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., in an attempt to support Moore’s “right” to force his religion on others.

After the rally was over, several members of Operation Rescue, an antiabortion organization, stood at different exits of the parks with signs reading, “Commandment #6: Thou Shalt Not Abortion,” above oversized pictures of fetuses. Unable to resist a final jab at the opposition, I asked the man, in reference to his sign, “Are you aware that abortion is not a verb?” The man, puzzled, shrugged his shoulders and turned his attention to the next approaching group.

All in all, the counter-demonstration went very well. Protesters appeared on all local newscasts and in many newspapers. NBC, CBS, CNN, and C-SPAN national news also beamed our message of religious tolerance across the nation. Perhaps others will see that not all Southerners are backwards bigots–just three or four thousand of them.

Adam Butler is Director of the Birmingham Freethought Society, a campus group, and communications coordinator for the Alabama Freethought Association, a Foundation chapter.

Freedom From Religion Foundation