Religion and Civil Rights : Judge Roy Moore and His Allies Believe That the United States Is a Community Constituted by a Religious Commitment That Shapes the Identities of Its Citizens

Article excerpt

The chief justice of the Alabama Supreme Court has a way of making a point. By placing a 5,280-pound granite monument in the state's judicial building in Montgomery in July 2001, Roy S. Moore provoked a media frenzy and constitutional struggle. Moore was not simply seeking publicity (though as an elected judge, he was doing that also). He has also brought himself considerable trouble.

His refusal to remove the monument at the direction of a federal court led to an ethics complaint charging that Moore refused "to respect and comply with the law" and "willfully failed to comply with an existing and binding court order directed at him." In August 2003, Moore was suspended from the state court until a hearing in November. The monument was placed in storage. In early November the U.S. Supreme Court refused to hear the case, thus upholding the lower court's judgment.

The issue Moore raised persists in public debate. Moore maintains that he and other Christians have an inalienable right to acknowledge God as "the basis of our system. ... the source of our law [and] the foundation of our country." The Ten Commandments monument was such recognition of God and thus an act of worship. As Judge Moore noted, the First Amendment to the Constitution protects "the freedom to worship Almighty God." In that light, the federal judges who removed the monument might have violated Moore's right to the free exercise of religion. Does he have a case?

Certainly he has political support. As with every controversy, the pollsters immediately began calling a thousand Americans at random. They found that over 70 percent of those sampled support the display of the Ten Commandments. Where public opinion goes, the House of Representatives often follows. By overwhelming margins, the House prohibited the Justice Department from using federal funds to implement the federal judges' rulings removing the monument. The vote was 260--161 overall; among Republicans, it was 210--13.

This support for Judge Moore is not surprising. Social scientists have long known that Americans are much more religious than Europeans. Polls tell us 83 percent of Americans profess one of the two major branches of Christianity, 75 percent believe religion is an important part of their lives, and a 56 percent majority say religion provides quite a bit or a great deal of guidance for daily life.

A majority of Americans say they go to church at least once a month, fully one-quarter say they attend weekly. About a third believe the Bible is literally true. In a statistical sense, Judge Moore is correct: the United States is a Christian and religious nation.

Displaying religious symbols

Moore and his allies also point out another uncomfortable truth for liberals. The government already displays the Ten Commandments and other Judeo-Christian symbols. Chief Justice William Rehnquist has noted that the U.S. Supreme Court's building has artwork showing Moses with the Ten Commandments. The courts have approved some displays like a monument on the Texas state capitol grounds in Austin and the tablets on the courthouse in Chester County, Pennsylvania. The Austin monument is a tablet-shaped granite display of the Ten Commandments located on the northwest side of the capitol. The Fraternal Order of Eagles has provided the monument, along with similar displays, on public grounds throughout the country. The Texas legislature approved its installation in 1961. In the Chester County case, a 50-inch-tall plaque was attached to the courthouse in 1920, displaying a version of the Ten Commandments taken from the King James Bible. The plaque had been there for 83 years. Some 20 legal cases concerning the Ten Commandments are now making their way through the judicial system.

Moore relies on more than practices and public opinion to make his case. He notes that the Declaration of Independence states all men "are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness. …