Sunday marked an overlooked anniversary in church-state separation history: It was 15 years ago that the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled unconstitutional then Alabama Judge Roy Moore’s display of the Ten Commandments at the Alabama Judicial Building in Montgomery.
The 11th Circuit’s decision came about seven months after a lower court had reached the same conclusion, and just shy of two years after Moore had erected the two-ton Decalogue in the court building. Americans United and allies had filed the lawsuit challenging Moore’s Ten Commandments display.
Sadly, that July 1, 2003, opinion would not be the end of Moore’s Ten Commandments crusade – or his defiance of church-state separation. He refused to comply with the court’s order to remove the display and an Alabama judicial review board removed him from the bench that November – the same month the U.S. Supreme Court declined to hear his appeal, ending the case.
Moore was later re-elected chief justice of the Alabama Supreme Court and was defying court orders again by 2015 and 2016 when he refused to recognize federal court orders regarding marriage equality, including the U.S. Supreme Court’s landmark opinion legalizing marriage for same-sex couples nationwide. More legal battles ensued (Americans United was involved) and Moore once again was suspended from the Alabama Supreme Court.
Moore resigned from the bench in April 2017 when he announced his campaign for U.S. Senate in Alabama. During his Senate run he made statements contrary to religious freedom – voicing anti-Muslim rhetoric when he insisted communities in the American Midwest are operating under Sharia, insisting the U.S. Constitution was written to foster Christianity – but it was accusations that he’d had inappropriate contact with teenagers when he was in his 30s that narrowly scuttled his election bid.
We probably haven’t heard the last from Moore – he’s something of a folk hero for the Religious Right. And the 11th Circuit’s decision 15 years ago sadly did not spell the end of attempts by government to display the Ten Commandments and other religious symbols at public buildings. In Moore’s home state, Alabama legislators this spring passed a bill that will trigger a voter referendum this fall on whether the state should allow public schools and buildings to display the Ten Commandments. Oklahoma also passed a bill allowing the display of the Decalogue in public schools and buildings.
Lawmakers in neighboring Mississippi this year also proposed a bill that would have not only required the display of the Ten Commandments in public schools, but also would have required teachers to recite the commandments to classes. Thankfully, that bill quickly died. Several states this year also proposed bills to display “In God We Trust” in public schools and buildings; a few of those passed.
A new Ten Commandments monument at the Arkansas Capitol has repeatedly been in the news since a state lawmaker paved the way for it to be installed last summer. A man drove his car through the Decalogue and destroyed it mere hours after it was erected. After a replacement was installed this spring, several lawsuits challenging its constitutionality were filed; a judge in late June agreed to merge those suits.
Some people refuse to acknowledge that displaying the symbols of one religion at public buildings sends the message that government endorses that faith – and therefore disfavors people who have other religious beliefs or who practice no religion. Schools, courthouses, city halls and other publicly owned spaces should be inclusive and welcoming to all.
If public officials feel it necessary to display an inspirational document that celebrates our freedoms, including religious freedom, I’ve got a perfect suggestion: the U.S. Constitution.