Hailing from Alabama, I have gotten used to explaining Alabama. People from other parts of the country unused to our idiosyncrasies often request interpretation of some scofflaw idiocy or other that appears, bearing a Heart of Dixie dateline, into our national discourse. It is not always easy to offer a rational justification of what goes on in these parts; for example, I still cannot fully explain Shorty Price. More often than not, a wan grin and a mumbled “Guess ya had to be here” will suffice for the curious interloper.
Usually the Alabamians who catch the nation’s notice are ordinary folk in ordinary circumstances—ordinary for us, anyway—but it stings when somebody who knows better perpetrates controversy. Somebody like the chief justice of the Alabama Supreme Court.
America has been treated to heaping helpings of Roy Moore since he first became a circuit judge in 1992 and started displaying his hand-carved Ten Commandments plaque in the courtroom. He was elected chief justice for the first time in 2000 and created national headlines soon thereafter for his opinion in a custody case, wherein he maintained that being gay was a good enough reason to deny custody to certain petitioning parents: “Disfavoring practicing homosexuals in custody matters promotes the general welfare of the people of our State in accordance with our law, which is the duty of its public servants…”
The prominent courtroom display of the Decalogue continued to be his cause celebre, and it couldn’t get much more prominent than the two-and-one-half ton granite Ten Commandments monument Moore delivered in 2001 under cover of darkness to the rotunda of the Heflin-Torbert Judicial Building in downtown Montgomery.
Legal groups, concerned that Moore’s belief in “the sovereignty of God over the affairs of men” jeopardized the separation of church and state, sued to oust the big rock. After a protracted legal battle, a federal court ruled in 2002 that Moore would have to remove his monument, but the chief justice vowed to disobey the order. Appeals, more legal wrangling and rallies at the Capitol ensued, but the verdict was upheld and the monument was taken out in 2004.
The rock actually left the building after Roy Moore did. The chief justice was removed from office on Nov. 13, 2003 by the Alabama Court of the Judiciary, which cited his public defiance of the rule of law as grounds sufficient to toss him out. Subsequently, he ran for governor in 2006 and 2010, losing both times by substantial margins, and flirted with the idea of a presidential run in 2012 before deciding to run once more for chief justice. This time he won, leaving us natives again at a loss to explain Alabama’s mysterious ways.
Justice Moore kept a comparatively low profile this time around, up until last week. On May 5, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled 5-4, against the wishes of the Founding Fathers they so loudly venerate, to diminish the separation of church and state by allowing the town of Greece, NY, to start its monthly council meetings with Christian prayers. Dissenting Justice Elena Kagan said that that practice violated religious equality, “the breathtakingly generous constitutional idea that our public institutions belong no less to the Buddhist or Hindu than to the Methodist or Episcopalian.”
Our scale model of a jurist’s peculiar take on the Constitution was even then making the rounds. The website The Raw Story dropped a video of Justice Moore speaking in January to a group called Pastors for Life at the Wesley Biblical Seminary in Jackson, MS. During the speech, he suggested that the First Amendment covers only Christians: “Everybody, to include the U.S. Supreme Court, has been deceived as to one little word in the First Amendment called ‘religion.’ They can’t define it. They can’t define it the way Mason, Madison and even the United State Supreme Court defined it, ‘the duties we owe to the Creator and the manner of discharging it.’ They don’t want to do that, because that acknowledges a Creator God. Buddha didn’t create us. Mohammed didn’t create us. It’s the God of the Holy Scriptures.”
I reckon Roy could fit all that onto a granite monument.
There was a predictable uproar in the wake of the report. Unlike on previous occasions, this time Justice Moore moved quickly to tamp it down. The very next day, in the Montgomery Advertiser, he asserted that the Constitution does indeed apply to non-Christians. “It applies to the rights God gave us to be free in our modes of thinking, and as far as religious liberty to all people, regardless of what they believe,” he told reporter Brian Lyman, who seems not to have pressed the justice to explain his remarks in Jackson.
And that seemed to be that. But should we just drop the story there? Perhaps it is instructive to reflect upon which public utterance more accurately reflected Justice Roy Moore’s views, the statement to the secular press or the speech to the zealots who share his belief in theocracy and in a United States of God.
I wonder exactly what sort of deity Roy Moore believes in. It seems to be a God that got no farther than the Pentateuch, based on the doctrine of intolerance the justice often advocates. It seems to be a God of wrath, not a God of love. Sometimes when Roy Moore speaks, one can imagine the New Testament never having been written.
“They didn’t bring a Koran on the Pilgrims’ ship, the Mayflower,” Moore told the proper Jacksonians. “Let’s get real. Let’s start learning our history.” Well, history tells us that the Koran was in America by 1683, and that John Adams and Thomas Jefferson were among many Founding Fathers who owned and read the book. To paraphrase a dictum Justice Moore doubtless learned in secular law school, ignorance of other people’s religions is no excuse.