April 2004 Church & State | Featured

Late fall of 2001 should have been a happy time for Brew­ton, Ala., resident Melinda "Lindy" Maddox.

Newly married, she and her husband had just re­turned from a relaxing honeymoon in Italy. To her dismay, Maddox noticed as she approached her house that during her absence, someone had shot out her windows.

It didn't take Maddox long to figure out what had happened. Before leaving the country, Maddox had agreed to serve as a plaintiff in a federal lawsuit challenging Alabama Chief Justice Roy Moore's placement of a two-and-a-half-ton Ten Commandments monument in the rotunda of the Judicial Building in Montgomery.

During the time Maddox was abroad, word of the controversial case hit the media, and her name became public. Some people in town apparently disagreed with her stand and wanted to send Maddox a not-so-subtle message letting her know that.

"I went to Italy," Maddox recalled recently. "I shouldn't have come back. Things started happening while I was gone. I came home, and the windows were shot out of my house."

Maddox had an opportunity last month to tell her story from a national platform. She visited Capitol Hill March 3, where she briefed members of Con­gress and their staffs about her experiences during the litigation.

An attorney in private practice, Maddox incurred the wrath of the community in Brewton, her hometown, after her involvement with the case was made public. Not only was her house attacked, but she was threatened, her vehicle was vandalized and her legal practice was boycotted. Eventually, she had to leave town.

Maddox received several threats on her life. She recalled one especially chilling message: The caller, referring to a brutal murder that had been in the news at the time, told her, "You should be hog-tied and thrown in the Escambia River, like that girl was last year."

Local police, Maddox charged, failed to take the threats seriously. When she asked community leaders to condemn the threats of violence, they instead told her to drop out of the case.

To Maddox, giving up was never an option. She told attendees she expected some disagreement over her actions, but she never thought challenging Moore's monument would spark such backlash. Nonetheless, Maddox has never doubted that she did the right thing.

"Placement of that monument an­gered me, it offended me, it intimidated me," Maddox said during the event at the Rayburn House Office Building. "It made me feel like I was an outsider in the community. It made me feel like my clients and I were never going to get justice in that building."

Maddox told attendees that although the personal threats were bad enough, what really angered her was that some people made threatening or harassing calls to her parents even though both of them were struggling with cancer at the time.

"I was shocked at what happened to me," Maddox said. "I didn't expect it. These were people I had known for 20 years."

Eventually, her clients dried up, and Maddox had to shut down her legal practice. Her marriage also fell apart. She later relocated to Mobile, where she now practices law.

Maddox, a Roman Catholic, told the crowd that she has no animus toward the Ten Commandments. She said she believes Moore used the issue of religion to further his political career, an act she found offensive. Maddox added that she believes houses of worship and families, not the government, should promote religion.

The federal courts agreed. On Nov. 18, 2002, U.S. District Judge Myron Thompson ruled Moore's action violated the constitutional separation of church and state. On July 1, 2003, the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals reached the same conclusion. In keeping with long-standing precedent, the Supreme Court left those rulings in place.

The actions of the federal judiciary vindicated the constitutional claims of Americans United, the ACLU of Alabama and the Southern Poverty Law Center, the three groups that brought the litigation. It also confirmed Maddox's view about Moore's monument.

"This simply degraded the sanctity of religion," Maddox asserted. "Religion is best left to the family and church. None of us need the government to endorse religion. It cheapens religion."

Despite the ordeal she has gone through, Maddox said she would do it all over again. She cited her parents as her inspiration.

"Since I was tiny, my dad told me to do what is right no matter what it costs you," Maddox said. "And my mom made me too stubborn to quit. We did what was right. It was unpopular; it cost us all personally and professionally. But I'd do it again if I had to."

U.S. Reps. Robert Scott (D-Va.) and Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.) hosted the event, which was sponsored by Americans United. Introducing Maddox, Scott noted that his state pioneered religious liberty during the colonial era.

"As a representative from Virginia, I appreciate the role of religious liberty and religious diversity," he said. Scott called religious freedom "the cornerstone of American rights."

"Standing up for the Constitution is never popular," Scott observed. "We have someone here today who can tell us about the importance of standing up for the Constitution no matter what." He lauded Maddox as "a true patriot and a true believer."

Nadler added, "I support the Ten Commandments, but the separation of church and state is key. What has happened in Alabama demonstrates that many of our leaders do not understand this."

Continued Nadler, "It has always been dangerous to stick your neck out for the First Amendment. I salute Melinda Maddox for doing that."

In brief remarks before Maddox spoke, Americans United Executive Director Barry W. Lynn said there are two kinds of heroes in the battle for religious liberty plaintiffs like Maddox who are brave enough to make a stand and members of Congress like Scott and Nadler who fight to protect Americans' rights in Washington.

"I thank all three of you for that," Lynn said.