Commandments monument is testament to states' rights

October 08, 2003|By Gregory Kane

THOSE STATES' rights folks are back again, and this time they may have a legitimate bone to pick.

The auditorium at Archbishop Spalding High School in Severn was nearly filled Friday night with people who had come to hear the man who may be the hero of the latest states' rights movement: Judge Roy Moore, chief justice of the Alabama Supreme Court.

Moore gained notoriety in the eyes of some and adoration from others this year during a dispute over a granite monument with the Ten Commandments written on it that he had installed in the rotunda of the Alabama Judicial Building. People who sincerely - but wrongly - believe the First Amendment forbids such things raised a ruckus. A federal judge ordered Moore to have the monument - which weighed more than 5,000 pounds - removed from the rotunda.

That judge must not have read the First Amendment closely. It says, "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof." Moore is not the Congress, and what he did sure didn't rise to the level of either preventing the free exercise of anyone's religion or establishing one. That and some much-ignored, rarely heeded but nonetheless important wording down in the 10th Amendment regarding states having rights not delegated to the federal government led Moore to believe he was on solid ground, ethically and legally, in defying the order.

Moore feels he has some history backing him up as well. After he was introduced to a rousing standing ovation, the judge went into some of that history. What went on in Alabama isn't about the separation of church and state, establishing religion or even the Ten Commandments, Moore said. It's about whether states have the right to acknowledge God. And the Founding Fathers did it constantly.

Here's Moore quoting some guy named George Washington, hailed as the father of our country in previous eras but today just another dead white guy to all too many Americans:

"Whereas it is the duty of all nations to acknowledge the providence of Almighty God ... " That was the beginning of a speech Washington made to Congress in October 1789. Then Moore quoted Harry Truman, the president who made the tough but correct decision to use atomic bombs against Japan in World War II and who later desegregated the military:

"We believe that all men are created equal because they are created in the image of God. From this faith we shall not be moved."

Moore repeated it a dozen times if he repeated it once: States do have a right to acknowledge God. That was his theme earlier in the day, at a Pasadena news conference sponsored by the Institute on the Constitution, whose members also invited Moore to speak.

"Acknowledgment of God is not prohibited by the First Amendment," Moore said. "It's the very purpose of the First Amendment."

Lest anyone harbor the notion that Moore is just some ignorant 'Bama rube who's spent way too much time in the Bible Belt, it behooves me to point out that there have been Supreme Court justices who agreed with him. In the 1962 Engel vs. Vitale case, Justice Potter Stewart noted in his lone dissent that previous courts - and the one he sat on - had completely misinterpreted the meaning of the First Amendment.

The Oxford Guide to Supreme Court Decisions paraphrased Potter's legal thinking this way: The "government cannot coerce one's religious beliefs because the Free Exercise Clause was preeminent, and the Establishment Clause simply forbids governmental establishment of an official church."

Twenty-three years later, William Rehnquist, in his pre-chief justice days, said in his dissent in Wallace vs. Jaffree that "the Constitution does not impose a `wall of separation' between church and state." According to the Oxford Guide, after an extended analysis of the intent of the framers of the First Amendment, Rehnquist concluded that the establishment clause merely forbids state establishment of a national church or preference of one sect over others and most certainly does not require a state to be neutral between religion and "irreligion."

Moore knows all this stuff. He quoted from memory passages of the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, several court decisions, Bible passages and the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.'s "Letter from Birmingham Jail" to support his position. Folks can loathe Judge Roy Moore or love him, but no one should believe that we're dealing with some backwoods hick. He is - and will be - a force to be reckoned with for years to come.

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