Today in 2001: Alabama Supreme Court Chief Justice has Ten Commandments monument installed in courthouse

August 1, 2014

Today in Legal HistoryPrior to and in the wake of the Supreme Court’s Hobby Lobby decision, questions of separation of church and state have been one of the central issues of the so-called “culture war.”

But Hobby Lobby wasn’t the first flash point on the issue, nor will it be the last.  In fact, 13 years ago today saw the beginning of another spark of church/state conflict.

On August 1, 2001, Chief Justice Roy S. Moore unveiled a 5,280-pound granite monument in the rotunda of the Alabama State Judicial Building, which houses, among other courts and state legal services, the Alabama Supreme Court.  The monument displayed the Ten Commandments as commonly depicted in the form of two tablets with rounded tops.

Justice Moore had it installed that night before without the knowledge of the other eight Alabama Supreme Court justices.  The only media coverage of the monument’s installation and unveiling was done by Coral Ridge Ministries, “an evangelical Christian media outreach organization with television and radio broadcasts that cover all major Alabama cities.”

Justice Moore had made all final decisions with regard to the specific language appearing on the monument, as well as its size, shape, color, and location within the Judicial Building.  Speaking of its location, the monument was located directly across the main entrance to the Judicial Building such that a person entering the building’s main entrance and looking across the large open area of the rotunda would immediately notice the monument.

The monument’s placement set off a major cultural clash over the separation of church and state, not only within the state of Alabama, but also on the national stage.  Naturally, Justice Moore was sued over his actions.

The lawsuit was brought by several lawyers (initially in two separate actions) who argued that the prominent placement of the monument violated the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment.

After a week-long trial, the U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Alabama found that “the evidence is overwhelming and the law is clear that the Chief Justice violated the Establishment Clause.”

Ten Commandments monumentThe ruling went on to note, however, that it is not “improper in all instances to display the Ten Commandments in government buildings.”  Indeed, the Ten Commandments are depicted in courthouses across the country, most notably in the halls of the Supreme Court Building.

Rather, this particular instance represented an extreme case in which the monument was “nothing less than ‘an obtrusive year-round religious display’ installed in the Alabama State Judicial Building in order to ‘place the government’s weight behind an obvious effort to proselytize on behalf of a particular religion,’ the Chief Justice’s religion.”

The opinion specifically noted the Chief Justice’s own words asserting that “his intent to design the monument [was] to emphasize the preeminence of God’s Word,” and that the monument was ultimately a “monument to…the Judeo–Christian God.”

As such, the November 2002 judgment ordered Justice Moore to remove the monument within 30 days, but the decision was stayed pending appeal.  However, after the court of appeals affirmed on July 1, 2003, Justice Moore announced that he had no intention of abiding by the district court’s order, and that doing so would “in effect, result in the disestablishment of our system of Justice in this State.”

A week later, the other eight Alabama Supreme Court justices ordered that the Building Manager of the Alabama Judicial Building “to take all steps necessary to comply” with the district court’s order “as soon as practicable.”  The monument was promptly removed.

Justice Moore later faced disciplinary action over this refusal to obey a court order, and, after a hearing and a subsequent appeal, Justice Moore was removed from office (with the concurrence of the appellate decision citing a long list of Bible verses that instruct believers to obey their governments).

Unlike other “culture war” cases from the same period, public opinion hasn’t shifted remarkably since this event concluded, as Hobby Lobby seems to demonstrate.

Whether this continues to be the case going into the future remains to be seen – but the existence of a state supreme court chief justice like Justice Moore would be a fairly strong indication of such.