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Defying the Law In Support of the Law

TIMES STAFF WRITERS

Thou shalt not display the Ten Commandments in court.

So sayeth a Montgomery County, Ala., judge, who this week commanded Roy Moore, a brother Alabama circuit court judge, to either take down the two-plaque replica of the Ten Commandments, which hangs over his right shoulder in his Etowah County courtroom, or bolster it with nonreligious artifacts that would convert it into a cultural display protected by law.

Either way, Moore is just saying no.

And he has the backing of many in his county of 100,000, even the support of Alabama Gov. Forrest “Fob” James Jr. “I will use all legal means at my disposal, including the National Guard and the state troopers, to prevent the removal of the Ten Commandments from Judge Moore’s courtroom,” James wrote in a letter dated Monday.

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Moore has also been ordered to stop his group prayers in court before cases are heard, though that matter has been postponed until the state Supreme Court can take a look.

Initially, he had been given 10 days to comply with the Feb. 10 ruling on the Ten Commandments, which was handed down by Alabama’s 16th Judicial Circuit. But, once again, appeals were filed on Moore’s behalf Wednesday requesting that the state high court give Moore a reprieve on this as well until it can review the case.

Regardless, Moore has vowed to break the circuit court’s order and continue his prayers and display when his next case is heard Feb. 24.

While it might seem a bit trivial to some, in Alabama Moore’s case has become a showdown that some compare to the 1963 Supreme Court ruling against prayer in schools. Many in this lush county in northeast Alabama believe their freedom of religion is trampled upon when courts deny them the ability to express their faith in public places.

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The case against displaying the plaques has been taken up by the state chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union.

The Gadsden, Ala.-based Christian Family Assn., meanwhile, is collecting signatures in support of the display to give to members of the state Supreme Court.

“We want our judges to be allowed to acknowledge God and be encouraged to acknowledge God,” says Dean Young, executive director of the association. “Christians aren’t going to sit back and let groups like the ACLU strip us of our religious liberties in this country.”

The ACLU argues that the plaques violate the separation of church and state. What’s more, ACLU attorneys say the plaques promote one particular religion and could offend those who do not wish to worship in the Judeo-Christian tradition. Attorney James A. Tucker says the organization is “very encouraged” by the 16th Circuit Court’s ruling this week and would not object to keeping the plaques as part of a wider cultural and historical display. Still, the ACLU spokesman says he fully expects Moore to resist the ruling.

The plaques are part of a scenario that runs deep in the Deep South, whether it involves school prayer, pornography or even school busing. The issue involves the right of a community to conduct its affairs without the interference of the larger society’s standards--a concept that predates the Civil War. Gov. James has made that clear with his threat to do all in his power--including enlisting arms--to protect the display. It’s a vow that recalls 1963, when then-Gov. George Wallace stood in a schoolhouse door to prevent the integration of the University of Alabama.

“I think that there are serious questions here about whether the governor believes that this is a nation of law or men,” says the ACLU’s Tucker.

Some say the governor is simply pandering to the populace for political gain. But clearly there is a sense here of David versus Goliath--a smaller conservative community against what it views as an increasingly liberal society at-large.

Or, as James told reporters last week: “It’s time to challenge the government’s . . . hostility toward God.”

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