Oct 29, 2001

A Ten Commandments monument in the rotunda of the Alabama State Judicial Building violates the Constitution, according to a lawsuit filed in federal district court today by two civil liberties groups.

Americans United for Separation of Church and State and the American Civil Liberties Union of Alabama said the religious display violates the church-state separation provision of the U.S. and Alabama constitutions. The complaint says the monument "sends a message to all who enter the State Judicial Building that the government encourages and endorses the practice of religion in general, and Judeo-Christianity in particular."

In August, Alabama Supreme Court Chief Justice Roy Moore unveiled a four-foot-tall, granite display of the Protestant version of the Ten Commandments weighing over 5,000 pounds. The monument also includes religious references from American history.

Said the Rev. Barry W. Lynn, executive director of Americans United, "As a Christian minister, I believe in the Ten Commandments, but I also believe in the separation of religion and government. In America, judges have an obligation to enforce the Constitution, not religious law. This monument belongs in church, not the courthouse."

Said Alabama ACLU Attorney Robert Varley, "The Ten Commandments monument at the Supreme Courthouse, to me, appears clearly intended to promote a particular religious viewpoint -- Judge Roy Moore's religious viewpoint. And the question I would ask is, what is the intended message -- that only those people who share Judge Moore's religious beliefs are welcome in the Supreme Court?"

Plaintiffs in the Johnson v. Hobson case are three Alabama attorneys who regularly have business in the judicial building -- Melinda Maddox, Robert Beckerle and Wade Johnson. The case was filed today in the U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Alabama in Montgomery.

Maddox, who is a Roman Catholic, and Beckerle and Johnson, who are Southern Baptists, say they are offended by the monument because it violates constitutional requirements and sends a message of exclusion to the community.

Ayesha Khan, Americans United Legal Director and lead counsel in the case, said, "When elected officials promote their personal faith through government action, they serve only to divide Americans along religious lines."

Moore became a cause celebre with the Religious Right in the 1990s when he posted a hand-carved plaque of the Commandments in his circuit courtroom and arranged for prayers in the Etowah County Courthouse. Moore rode the notoriety associated with the controversy into a successful election campaign in November for chief justice of the state Supreme Court.

The evening of July 31, Moore waited until court employees, and his colleagues on the state's high court, had left the state judicial building. Once alone, Moore joined a small team of supporters in placing the display in the lobby. Moore had never conferred with other justices about the monument, and did not seek their counsel or consent before deciding to bring his religious display to the rotunda.

Americans United is a Washington, D.C.-based religious liberty watchdog group with 70,000 members and dozens of allied houses of worship. Founded by religious leaders in 1947, the organization educates Americans about the importance of safeguarding religious liberty and preserving freedom of conscience.

The ACLU of Alabama, located in Montgomery, Ala., is a civil liberties organization committed to the preservation of the constitutional rights of all Americans.