Alabama Supreme Court Slips through Loophole in Commandments Case, but Conflict Rages On

Church & State, March 1998 | Go to article overview

Alabama Supreme Court Slips through Loophole in Commandments Case, but Conflict Rages On


Ducking a bitter church-state controversy, the Alabama Supreme Court has rejected on technical grounds a legal wrangle over a state judge's posting of the Ten Commandments.

In a Jan. 23 action, Justice Ralph Cook and four others on the bench held that the two cases dealing with Etowah County Circuit Court Judge Roy Moore's courtroom religious practices were "not justiciable."

The court ruled that the lawsuits either did not present a genuine conflict or failed to ask for a remedy that could be provided. The decision in Alabama v. ACLU of Alabama and Moore v. American Civil Liberties Union of Alabama means that Judge Moore can continue to display a hand-carved rendering of the Ten Commandments and open jury sessions with clergy-led Christian prayers. However, it does not provide a ruling on whether those practices violate the First Amendment's religious liberty provisions.

The Alabama high court, whose members are elected by the voters, clearly saw the Ten Commandments controversy as a political hot potato. Only five of the nine justices participated in the ruling. Four others found reasons to excuse themselves from the case altogether.

Coy. Fob James, a vehement critic of church-state separation, tried to put the best face on the court's action, calling it "a great victory for those Alabamans who feel Judge Moore's actions did not violate the Constitution in any way whatsoever."

Moore agreed. Describing the action as an answer to the "prayers of God's people," he observed, "They could not allow a practice to continue if it was unconstitutional. So in my opinion, this ruling basically says that what I do is constitutional."

Moore's analysis is completely wrong, critics charged. Tuscaloosa attorney Joel Sogol, who brought the original ACLU challenge to Moore's practices in 1993, said, "Nobody got anything. We're all back to where we were when we began. …

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Alabama Supreme Court Slips through Loophole in Commandments Case, but Conflict Rages On
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