(Editor’s Note: The following story from 1996 received a Rockower Award for Excellence in Editorial Writing from the American Jewish Press Association.)
Step Down, Rev. Moore
If one day you find yourself standing in a courtroom as a defendant, and the court finds against you, here’s what you should do.
Once the verdict comes down, tell the judge you consider it your duty not to obey his order, turn around, and walk out of the courtroom.
Chances are, before you reach the door, a friendly law enforcement officer will greet you with a shiny new pair of handcuffs for you to try on before he escorts you to a choice cell in the nearest jail.
But don’t worry. All you have to do is say that you are following the example of Judge Roy Moore.
Amazingly, Moore is still a circuit court judge in Etowah County. Last year, the American Civil Liberties Union wanted to show that the widespread practice of judges having clergy offer prayers in their courtrooms was an unconstitutional violation of the separation of church and state. Moore was selected for the suit because not only did he invite Christian clergy to start off court sessions with prayer, he also had a hand-carved replica of the Christian version of the Ten Commandments hanging in his courtroom.
The ACLU suit was thrown out of federal court because of a jurisdiction issue, without ruling on the merits of the case.
Moore and Governor Fob James sued the ACLU to prevent it from pursuing him again, then the ACLU counter-sued to stop state-sponsored prayer.
In September, both sides agreed to let Montgomery Circuit Judge Charles Price decide the issue.
The Ten Commandments can stay, Price said, but courtroom prayers must “immediately cease and desist,” not only in Moore’s courtroom, but in all Alabama courts. Joel Sogol, the Tuscaloosa attorney who brought the original ACLU suit, points out that there is not one example of a non-Christian issuing a prayer in any Alabama courtroom.
Price’s ruling did not give Moore everything he wanted, so Moore said he will listen to what he considers God’s ruling instead.
In a rally following the ruling, Moore said he has a “duty to acknowledge God.” To stop holding prayer in his court “would be a violation of that duty. I will not take down the Ten Commandments, and I will not stop holding prayer.”
Moore’s former spokesman, Christian Family Association leader Dean Young told a rally of supporters following Price’s ruling that if Moore is found in contempt of court, “I hope Judge Price will think very seriously about being found in contempt of the Almighty Judge.”
Didn’t the man in whose name Moore prays warn “do not be like the hypocrites, for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and at the street corners to be seen by the people… When you pray, enter your inner room and with your door closed pray to your Father who is there in the secret place, and your Father, who sees in secret, will reward you” (Matthew 6:5-6).
The refusal of a sitting judge to obey a court order completely destroys his authority in the courtroom. Whether or not one agrees with Moore on the religious issues, his public, open refusal to abide by a court ruling should indicate that he is unfit to continue on the bench.
Moore feels it is violating his freedom of religion to tell him where and when he can and can not pray. Apparently, nobody ever taught him about time and place. Just because one can run screaming on the playground does not mean one can run screaming through a restaurant.
It is true that any time is a good time to pray. Still, our society is also built on courtesy and sensitivity. If a Satanic group barged into a church one Sunday morning and started waving around animal parts, few would come to the Satanists’ defense saying they were merely exercising their freedom of religion.
A courtroom where people of all faiths are equal before the law is not the place to start injecting sectarian issues. The argument that this means believing Christians can’t be judges is hogwash. If that were true, we would be emptying the vast majority of benches in the country.
Moore has not learned the lesson of time and place. He also is not conveying it to his 9-year-old son, who Moore said thought the ruling meant he could not pray at home. “We are slowly losing our right to pray,” he said. “We should tremble for our country.”
We should tremble for our country’s future, especially if our future leaders are being brought up to believe that anyone concerned about sectarian observances in public, pluralistic institutions like a courthouse is really against all prayer and against God.
As The Daily Home of Talladega — hardly an anti-Christian publication — editorialized, “Our forefathers came to America in part to escape state-sanctioned religion that left no room for individual belief. And Judge Moore’s requirement that prayer be part of his courtroom is nothing less than state-sanctioned religion… Imposition of prayer in a secular setting infringes on the freedom of others who are in those settings for reasons that are not at all religious…
“No one is denying Judge Moore the right to make… a humble and sincere request to God. All Judge Price is saying is that Judge Moore can’t force others to participate.”
As if the prayer issue is not enough, his conduct involving a divorce case in recent months is appalling. Since the Ten Commandments suit was filed over a year ago, Moore has worn his fundamentalist beliefs on his sleeve, becoming a sought-after speaker at Christian events.
With that in mind, the woman in the divorce case asked for the case to be heard in a different court, because the case involved her alleged lesbian affair. Fundamentalist Christians generally don’t have favorable opinions of homosexuality, using terms like “abomination” and “perversity”.
When Young heard about the case, he spread word to area churches on the day the case was heard. The courtroom was packed with true believers seeking to demonstrate against homosexuality, and Young led a similar rally outside the courthouse.
For some reason, the woman in the case felt she could not get a fair hearing in Moore’s courtroom. But in an unusual move, Moore refused to recuse himself. Even more startling is Moore’s plan to appeal an Alabama Court of Civil Appeals ruling removing him from the case.
It should be obvious to anyone that this case is no longer about a simple divorce proceeding, but about Moore’s religious crusade. The issue is homosexuality, not getting justice for a woman who comes to his courtroom.
We respectfully suggest Moore swap his judicial robe for a pulpit robe, for the latter seems to be where he is more comfortable.