Ten Commandments to stay in courtroom

BIRMINGHAM, Ala. — The lengthy dispute over a judge's religious practices in court is back where it started.

On Friday of last week, the Alabama Supreme Court dismissed a lawsuit against Etowah County Circuit Judge Roy Moore, allowing Moore to continue having Christian clergy offer prayers at the beginning of jury sessions and to continue posting a plaque of the Ten Commandments in the court room.

The suit was thrown out on a technicality.

The dispute, which has received national attention, began in March 1995 when the American Civil Liberties Union filed suit against Moore on behalf of two Etowah County residents. That July, the suit was thrown out by Judge Robert Probst, who ruled that the residents did not have "legal standing" to bring the suit.

Alabama Gov. Fob James and Attorney General Bill Pryor then filed suit, seeking to have the court declare Moore's practice constitutional, and prevent the ACLU from pursuing the case further.

That suit was thrown out Friday of last week, on the same technicality. The Supreme Court ruled the case was not a legal dispute, but a political one.

"We will not…allow the judiciary of this state to become a political foil, or a sounding board for topics of contemporary interest," Justice Ralph Cook wrote in the majority opinion. The lawsuit was filed not to challenge the Moore's conduct but to perpetuate it, and "this is not what lawsuits are about."

The ruling overturns the November decree of Montgomery County Circuit Judge Charles Price, who said the prayers and display were unconstitutional.

Moore hailed the ruling as a victory. "The prayers of God's people have been heard," he said.

He insists the ruling was a victory for the separation of church and state, because "no power has the authority to tell you how to worship God." Moore has often stated the Ten Commandments' display and the courtroom prayers are part of exercising his "duty" to acknowledge God.

One of Moore's key supporters, the Christian Family Association's executive director, Dean Young, said the organization will offer Ten Commandments replicas to every judge in the state.

James was disappointed that the court did not go ahead and rule that Moore's practices were constitutional. The governor has stated that he would call out the National Guard to protect Moore's display from any court order, short of a directive from President Clinton.

He reiterated that position at an Alabama State Baptist Convention legislative prayer luncheon on Jan. 14, criticizing the courts for their "illegal usurpation of authority" in ruling several practices as unconstitutional.

Last summer, James sent justices a letter claiming that the Bill of Rights does not apply to state government and that the courts have no right to interfere in state practices.

Joel Sogol, who filed the original suit for the ACLU, was disappointed that there was no ruling on the constitutionality of Moore's practices, and said there may be another lawsuit filed. However, with the publicity surrounding the case, he would not be surprised if people would be reluctant to step forward to put their names on a suit.