Ten Commandments play campaign role

Alabama judge who fought to display tenets seeks top job

June 06, 2000|By Ann LoLordo | Ann LoLordo,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

GADSDEN, Ala. - When Judge Roy S. Moore presides over cases in his Alabama courtroom, an American flag and the state seal hang on the wall over his left shoulder. A hand-carved plaque of the Ten Commandments hangs over his right shoulder.

And the latter has made all the difference in his run for chief justice of the state's Supreme Court. Moore's claim of a constitutional right to display those wooden tablets in a public building - a right he has championed from California to Florida since 1995 - is the reason he's the leading Republican candidate for the judicial post in the primary today.

An affable campaigner who preaches a return "to the moral foundations of our law," Moore has got the opposition on the run in this Bible-Belt state. It is a race dominated by religion, but where big businesses clash with trial lawyers who have won multimillion-dollar lawsuits against corporations.

The stakes are such that Moore's key opponent is relying on advice from presidential candidate George W. Bush's chief political strategist to help him defeat the Ten Commandments judge.

Political observers attribute Moore's lead in the polls not to his conscientious conservatism on the bench, but to the publicity surrounding his Ten Commandments fight. In this race, the chief justice candidates are having to talk not only about their law degrees but their religious pedigrees.

Of Moore's three rivals in the GOP primary, Justice Harold See is the only member of the state Supreme Court. See, 56, is described as a thoughtful, diligent and proven jurist. He commands a flush campaign chest and the support of Alabama's influential business council. He showed in 1996 that he could beat a tough Democratic incumbent. A Mobile Register-University of South Alabama poll, whose results were reported Sunday had See and Moore in a statistical dead heat, but 25 percent of respondents were undecided.

See's television ads last week appealed to the core element of Moore's support, the Christian right, without explicitly mentioning religion.

"Conservatives have a clear choice for chief justice" began the ad, which went on to criticize Moore as soft on drug dealers. At a reception See praised Moore's stand on the Ten Commandments and noted that, as a law professor, he voluntarily helped in the judge's legal fight against the American Civil Liberties Union's challenge to Moore's posting of the commandments.

See's campaign literature reminds voters that he is a Baptist Sunday school teacher whose "faith in God, traditional values and strong families are the key to a better Alabama."

P. Wayne Thorn, an Alabama judge since 1981 and chief justice candidate, also used the "conservative" label in his television ads to appeal to Republican voters. And when voters asked candidate Pam Baschab if she would stand up for the Ten Commandments, the 52-year-old appellate judge replied, "I do have a little copy of them under glass on my desk."

As University of Alabama political scientist William Stewart observed: "It's not easy to run against the Ten Commandments and prayer."

As Moore tells the story, his decision to hang the Ten Commandments in his county circuit court was as much a decor decision as a philosophical one. "Initially it was a means of decorating my court room," Moore said, of the plaque that hung in his dining room. "I came across this. I felt it was the fundamental basis of our society and our law."

When the ACLU sued in 1995 to have the plaque removed, the West Point graduate and Vietnam War veteran decided to fight. When his federal lawsuit was thrown out, Moore resumed his fight in the state courts. A state judge initially found the plaque acceptable. But after visiting Moore's court room, he ordered the plaque taken down, saying it was unconstitutional. Moore defied the order, and then-Gov. Fob James, a fundamentalist Christian, promised to back him with National Guard troops.

The case continued to make headlines until the state Supreme Court refused to hear it. Moore's political profile was changed forever. Today, Moore carries in his suit pocket a booklet entitled "Documents of Freedom" that include the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution and George Washington's farewell address.

The book is highlighted, references to God underlined.

"All the Ten Commandments are is an acknowledgment of God and the Holy Scripture, and the recognition of God should certainly play into a judge's decision," Moore said between campaign appearances last month.

He easily cites the occasions in the political and judicial systems in which God's name is invoked - from the Pledge of Allegiance to the oath taken by a trial witness to the "In God We Trust" engraved on a quarter.

"If the law already recognizes God, how can we do otherwise?" he said. "When you exclude the knowledge of God, you wind up with shootings in your schools."

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