Ten Commandments Cases Take Twists & Turns (Jan/Feb 1998)

It looks like the case against Alabama’s praying, Ten-Commandments-posting Judge Roy Moore goes back to square one, after the Alabama Supreme Court threw out a lawsuit against him on a technicality.
Initially both Moore and Gov. Fob James were claiming victory after the Jan. 23 decision was announced. The action ensures that Moore can continue scheduling official courtroom prayers and keep his homemade carving of the Ten Commandments above his bench.

The challenge, taken by the ACLU on behalf of the Foundation’s chapter, the Alabama Freethought Association, and Etowah County plaintiffs, including Gloria Hershiser, was complicated by many tortured legal maneuvers by the governor. In a bizarre twist, the lawsuit made its way up to the state Supreme Court in the form of the Governor suing Moore, the ACLU and the Alabama Freethought Association.

The court explicitly ruled that Gov. Fob James and Attorney General Bill Pryor did not have standing to sue Moore, as they had no legal disagreement with the judge.

In a separate legal action, the ACLU and Alabama Freethought Association asked the state’s chief justice, as administrative head of the state court system, to set a policy which would force Moore to cease his practice of holding Christian prayers at jury pools. The Supreme Court ruled that the chief justice does not have authority in the case.

Three justices who signed the decision or concurred with it are up for re-election this year. The court’s opinion included a remark that it did not intend to be a sounding board for “topics of contemporary interest.”

The action voids the decision of Circuit Judge Charles Price of Montgomery, who ruled in November 1996 that Moore must stop the courtroom prayers, and ruled in February 1997 that the Ten Commandments display, if left on the wall by itself, must be removed. Moore appealed Price’s ruling to the Supreme Court, which permitted him to continue his religious practices while the case was under consideration.

Reacting to the news of the decision, Gov. James reiterated his threat to call out the National Guard to keep anyone from removing the Ten Commandments plaque from Moore’s courtroom: “I was prepared to do it then, and I’m prepared to do it now.”

Pat Cleveland, president of the Alabama Freethought Association, immediately petitioned the ACLU to go back to court to challenge the illegal practices.

In another unresolved but related case, Wisconsin’s Brown County Board on Jan. 21 voted 20-3 to hold a nonbinding referendum in November 1998 over whether to post the Ten Commandments on county property.

The vote was unexpected, since the Board had voted 17-7 last September to reject the demand by a Michigan-based outfit connected to Judge Roy Moore.

The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel quoted a crowing Dean Young, of Alabama, founder and executive director of the “Christian Family Association,” saying Brown County “will be the first county in the United States where people will have an opportunity to say, ‘We want the Ten Commandments in our courthouse, we want to acknowledge God in our courthouse.’ “

Young, who has worked with the Christian Coalition, said his group is mounting campaigns to force county boards in every county in Wisconsin, Michigan, Indiana, Ohio, Idaho and South Carolina to post the Ten Commandments in courthouses.

The Christian Family Association’s Michigan representative, Dennis Pape, brought pressure on the Brown County Board for six months. Pape claimed on Wisconsin Public Radio in July that our society needs to “return to God” because “boys [want] to carry purses and girls to carry footballs.”

On behalf of the Foundation, attorney Jeffrey Kassel wrote the Brown County Board on January 14, cautioning it not to engage in “an exercise in futility.” Kassel cited the U.S. Supreme Court decision Stone v Graham (1980), which ruled that the Ten Commandments cannot be posted in public schools.

The Court pointed out: “The Commandments do not confine themselves to arguably secular matters, such as honoring one’s parents, killing or murder . . . Rather, the first part of the Commandments concerns the religious duties of believers: worshipping the Lord God alone, avoiding idolatry, not using the Lord’s name in vain, and observing the Sabbath Day.” Kassel noted, “The fundamental protections provided by the federal and state constitutions cannot be overridden by a referendum vote.”

Brown County Supervisor Joan Mills, who voted against holding the referendum, commented to the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel: “My hope is that the referendum will fail overwhelmingly, and most people believe that it will.”

Freedom From Religion Foundation