Alabama’s Conspiracy of Ignorance (March 1997)

What believers are up to in the state of Alabama . . . is simply unbelievable!

A two-year lawsuit against Judge Roy Moore of Etowah County for conducting courtroom prayers (Southern Baptist version only) and posting the Ten Commandments on the wall by his bench, has brought out the fanaticism in Alabama’s Christian officials and lawmakers.

The ACLU suit was brought on behalf of the Foundation’s Alabama chapter, the Alabama Freethought Association, and three Etowah County plaintiffs, including Foundation member Gloria Hershiser.

Montgomery County Circuit Judge Charles Price ruled last November 22 that Moore must cease the prayers. After Price indicated in early 1997 that the Ten Commandments might have to come down, Alabama Gov. Fob James got into the fray.

James announced to enthusiastic applause before the Baptists’ annual Legislative Prayer Luncheon in Montgomery on February 5 that he would “call in the National Guard” if a court ordered Moore to remove the commandments and to stop praying.

“The only way those Ten Commandments and prayer would be stripped from that courtroom is with the force of arms,” he vowed.

On his own radio show in February, James elaborated: “I will use all legal means at my disposal, including the National Guard and State Troopers, to prevent the removal of the Ten Commandments from Judge Moore’s courtroom.”

James’s pledge inevitably recalled the specter of Gov. George C. Wallace in 1963 standing in front of a schoolhouse door to prevent integration of the University of Alabama.

James told the media, “It may not be necessary to take bayonets and loaded guns, but we’re not going to have those Ten Commandments stripped from the courtroom, because I believe it’s in violation of the Constitution that I swore to uphold.”

Moore meanwhile vowed repeatedly to defy the court decision against prayer.

The Alabama State Supreme Court issued a stay on February 7 against the order stopping Moore from praying during court proceedings, pending the appeal. Four judges approved the continuation of prayer in Etowah County circuit courts until the appeal is heard.

On February 10, Judge Price announced that Moore would have to remove the commandments unless he made the decalogue part of an overall secular display of historical documents, basing his ruling on a 1993 federal court decision in Georgia. Price noted that the Ten Commandments, placed by itself behind the bench and particularly visible from the jury box, are there for “purely religious” purposes, as Moore himself had often stated.

Price revealed he had been targeted in an intense campaign by Moore supporters to “save the Ten Commandments.”

“They are neither stained, tarnished nor thrashed,” Price ruled. “They may be displayed in every church, synagogue, temple, mosque, home and storefront. Where this precious gift cannot and should not be displayed as an obvious religious text or to promote religion is on government property (particularly in a courtroom).”

Price gave Moore ten days to comply. Acting on a motion filed by Gov. Fob James and Attorney General Bill Pryor, the state’s high court on Feb. 19 stayed Price’s order to remove the Ten Commandments.

Alabama’s Attorney General got into the act, telling the media: “To suggest that this is in violation of the Supreme Court is astounding,” asserting that Congress, the U.S. Supreme Court and other government bodies open sessions with prayer and display religious articles. The “willing acknowledgment of God by government” is not unconstitutional, he told The Gadsden Times (Feb. 9, 1997). He also insisted, erroneously, that the U.S. Supreme Court displays the Ten Commandments.

During a debate on CBS This Morning on Feb. 12, Gov. James called Alabama ACLU lawyer James Tucker a “legal ignoramus.” On other talk shows James compared his stance to President Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation.

James, Moore and Pryor are all Republicans, while Judge Price is a Democrat.

It did not take Democrats long to sniff a re-election strategy. State legislator Sen. Roger Bedford, D-Russellville, introduced a bill to “legalize” the placement of the Ten Commandments in all public classrooms and courtrooms.

Then Democratic state senators proposed a constitutional amendment to the Alabama constitution–which contains some of the strongest wording protecting state/church separation in the nation–to return prayer to public schools as part of “the study of American history and government.” Lt. Gov. Don Siegelman and 18 Senate Democrats would require schools to begin each day by reading a prayer that has been offered as part of the daily opening ceremony of Congress. It would require students to spend up to 15 minutes each morning hearing the Pledge of Allegiance read aloud and discussing issues such as “the relationship of the Ten Commandments to America’s civil and criminal laws” and why references to a deity are on American coins.

“It’s a way to get children to think about our heritage and the relationship God had to our forefathers,” said Siegelman. The Democrats want the amendment to be considered in time to go out to special statewide referendum in August, at a cost of $2 million. “It’s cheaper than calling out the National Guard,” Siegelman said.

Republicans, such as Sen. Larry Dixon, Montgomery, whined: “They are trying to steal our issues!”

Not to be one-upped, a resolution by Rep. Bob McKee, R-Montgomery, in support of Moore, was approved by a 61-14 vote of the Alabama house on Feb. 18 and was sent to the Rules Committee for consideration. The resolution encourages all judges to open court sessions with prayer.

Not to be outdone, U.S. Rep. Robert Aderholt, R-AL, introduced a resolution on March 3 calling on Congress to support the public display of the Ten Commandments in courthouses and other government buildings. The resolution declares the Ten Commandments “the cornerstones of a fair and just society.”

During debate, Rep. Melvin Watt, D-NC, said the Ten Commandments should be considered in churches, not in the hall of Congress: “We ought to be ashamed of ourselves for parading this resolution out here as if it were some kind of serious business.” Rep. Stephen Horn, R-CA, accused Aderholt and others of using the resolution for political gain, and criticized House GOP leaders for bringing the measure to the floor of Congress without any committee hearings.

On March 5, 1997, the U.S. House of Representatives, by a 295-125 vote, approved a nonbinding resolution that public displays of the Ten Commandments should be encouraged.

“The first commandment alone–‘Thou shalt have no other gods before me’–should rule out promotion of the Ten Commandments by government,” commented Anne Gaylor. “In a democracy such as ours, you are free to have one god, many gods, any god you like or no god at all.”

What next?

The Freedom From Religion Foundation sent a “Love Thy First Amendment” bumpersticker to the Alabama state senator seeking to impose the Ten Commandments upon all schoolchildren and courtrooms.

The Foundation noted the unconstitutionality of the proposal, given a ruling by the high court in 1980 in Stone v. Graham calling the posting of the Ten Commandments in public classrooms an unconstitutional establishment of religion.

The Foundation also sent Alabama media and public officials copies of its brochures, “What’s Wrong with the Ten Commandments?” and “The Case Against School Prayer.”

The Foundation wrote Alabama Attorney General Bill Pryor to “cease and desist” in making the false claim that the Ten Commandments are displayed at the U.S. Supreme Court.

The Foundation noted that a frieze in the chambers shows an allegorical representation of the evolution of the legal justice system. According to Franz Jantzen, coordinator of photograph collections, this section of the frieze is “often misconstrued” to be the Ten Commandments, but “It is not the Ten Commandments.” The numbered tablets depicted are untitled and, in fact, are blank.

The Foundation also noted that the high court does not begin with an actual prayer. It points out that while it deplores prayers before Congress, such a practice cannot be compared to a judge forcing a captive audience to pray or listen to a prayer, or to a teacher or public school proselytizing schoolchildren.

On behalf of its Alabama members, Foundation president Anne Gaylor also wrote Gov. Fob James to protest his “shocking pronouncements demonstrating hostility and contempt for our country’s time-honored, treasured principle of separation of church and state,” calling his threat reminiscent of the “court-defying abominations of the 1960’s.”

“You are attempting now to subvert the First Amendment, but no governor is above the law or above the Constitution.”

In other action, the Foundation protested the practice of Judge Bill Rhea, another Etowah County judge, in hosting courtroom prayers, and protested Sheriff James Hayes’ inappropriate conduct in leading those Christian prayers in Rhea’s courtroom.

“Some of the bravest and most committed freethinkers in the nation, fortunately, live in Alabama,” commented Anne Gaylor. Alabama has an activist Foundation chapter, the Alabama Freethought Association founded by Roger and Pat Cleveland.

“These Alabama freethinkers are very brave. Students Chris McDougal and Charity Faulkenberry, as well as Roger Cleveland, picketed outside the courthouse, holding signs defending the Constitution. Al Faulkenberry, ordered to show up for jury duty in Judge Moore’s court, identified himself as an atheist and requested permission to leave during the prayer, stealing much of Moore’s thunder. Carol Faulkenberry, Barbara Buttram, Pat Cleveland and Hank Shiver have kept us posted, sometimes on a daily basis, on new developments.”

To express your concerns, write to The Montgomery Advertiser, PO Box 1000, Montgomery AL 36101; and The Gadsden Times (Etowah County’s newspaper), PO Box 188, Gadsden AL 35999, or The Washington Post, 1150 15th St., NW, Washington DC 20071.

Freedom From Religion Foundation