Editor’s Note: 2022 marks the 75th anniversary of the founding of Americans United for Separation of Church and State. To celebrate this milestone anniversary, Church & State will be profiling important figures in the life of the organization throughout the year. This month, we’re featuring Melinda Maddox, an Alabama attorney who was a plaintiff in one of AU’s most high-profile legal battles.
On Aug. 1, 2001, Roy S. Moore, chief justice of the Alabama Supreme Court, stood in the Judicial Building in Montgomery, the state’s capital, and unveiled a 2.5-ton monument listing the Ten Commandments, which he had secretly arranged to have brought into the building the night before.
Moore was convinced that the day would go down in history.
“Today, a cry has gone out across our land for the acknowledgement of that God upon whom we are dependent as a nation, and for those simple truths that our forefathers found to be ‘self-evident,’” Moore remarked. “May this day mark the beginning of the restoration of the moral foundation of law to our people and a return to the knowledge of God in our land.”
To Melinda Maddox, who at the time was serving as chair of the American Civil Liberties Union of Alabama’s legal committee, Moore’s display, which some people took to calling “Roy’s rock,” was something else: unconstitutional.
It was Maddox’s task to write Moore a letter asking him to remove the monument or allow other faiths to erect their own displays in the same area. She duly did that, and not long afterward she found herself on the telephone, talking to Moore.
“In a phone conversation he and I had in response to my letter, he told me flatly that ‘the United States of America was founded by fundamentalist Protestants and that y’all – meaning all of us who were not fundamentalists Protestants – don’t belong here,’” Maddox told Church & State recently. “He refused to remove the monument or allow other displays to stand with it.”
Moore had been on the ACLU’s radar screen for years. As a state judge in Etowah County, he had displayed a hand-carved Ten Commandments plaque in his courtroom and opened sessions with prayers. Moore used the fame he gained from that controversy to win election as the state’s chief justice in 2000.
But the ACLU was not the only group keeping an eye on Moore. Americans United had also protested Moore’s displays of courtroom piety. And the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC), a group based in Montgomery, was also monitoring Moore.
When it became clear that Moore would not budge on the decalogue display, Americans United and the ACLU teamed up to sue him in federal court. SPLC later joined the legal action. Maddox ended up as one of the plaintiffs
“Since my office was in Brewton and I often had to make use of the State Law Library, I had to pass by the rock every single time I went to Montgomery to do research or to file briefs,” Maddox recalled. “Because I found this whole religious atmosphere to be extremely uncomfortable, I ended up having to buy my own library, hire runners to deliver documents to the court and just avoid the rotunda and the people lying prostrate on the floor, praying at the rock.
“Also,” she continued, “it was obvious to all of us who practiced criminal defense that our clients were not going to get fair treatment from a judge who quoted scripture in his opinions and who made the Protestant decalogue the cornerstone of his rulings.”
Maddox remembers that few attorneys in Alabama were eager to sue the state’s top judge.
“No one else wanted to poke the bear,” she said. “I mean, what practicing lawyer, in his right mind, is going to sue the chief justice of his own state supreme court, right? Several people talked with me about assuming the role, but no one wanted to assume the risk associated with that move. So, I stepped into the role of plaintiff. Fortunately, a Montgomery lawyer, Beverly Howard, decided to join me.” (A third attorney, Stephen R. Glassroth, also joined the legal action.)
The lawsuit, Glassroth v. Moore, was filed on Oct. 30, 2001. A trial was held in federal court, during which Moore testified. Ayesha Khan, AU’s legal director at the time, argued the case, and on Nov. 18, 2002, U.S. District Judge Myron H. Thompson issued a ruling ordering the removal of Moore’s monument.
In his 96-page ruling, Thompson did not mince words.
“The Chief Justice’s understanding of the relationship between God and the state comes uncomfortably close to the adoption of ‘a government of a state by the immediate direction or administration of God,’ that is, a ‘theocracy,’ albeit in the Chief Justice’s mind a tolerant one,” Thompson wrote. “The court must unequivocally reject the adoption of an approach that could lead to that outcome.”
Moore and his attorneys filed an appeal. He also made it clear he would not move the monument, even if ordered by a higher court.
That’s exactly what happened in July 2003 when the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals upheld Thompson’s ruling. The unanimous opinion, written by Circuit Judge Ed Carnes, was clear: Moore’s display had to go.
“[I]f we adopted his position, the Chief Justice would be free to adorn the walls of the Alabama Supreme Court’s courtroom with sectarian religious murals and have decidedly religious quotations painted above the bench,” wrote Carnes. “Every government building could be topped with a cross, or a menorah, or a statue of Buddha, depending upon the views of the officials with authority over the premises. A crèche could occupy the place of honor in the lobby or rotunda of every municipal, county, state and federal building. Proselytizing religious messages could be played over the public address system in every government building at the whim of the official in charge of the premises. However appealing those prospects may be to some, the position Chief Justice Moore takes is foreclosed by Supreme Court precedent.”
Moore attempted a final appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court, which declined to hear the case.
Maddox, meanwhile, had spent the previous two years dealing with the fallout from being a plaintiff in such a high-profile legal tussle. A Church & State article at the time reported that she called herself “the least popular woman in Alabama.” She received harassing phone calls, her car was vandalized and clients deserted her law practice.
Reflecting on that period today, Maddox, who no longer lives in Alabama, speaks frankly of the toll the case took on her.
“All kinds of crazy things happened, not just locally, but nationally,” she said. “In my hometown, people threatened me and my family, vandalized my home and my office, boycotted my practice. The worst thing to me was the day I was at work, and someone came to my yard, caught all the squirrels that I was fostering, killed each one of them and hung them with fishing line from my trees. This brought home to me just how alone I was. This person or persons spent several hours in my yard, in broad daylight, in front of all my neighbors, but no one tried to stop it, and no one would tell me who did it. It was clear that the whole community was complicit.”
Maddox also recalls being the target of organized letter-writing and phone campaigns from fundamentalist churches.
“This was the early days of caller-ID, so I would have 200 calls from the ‘X church community center’ in a day,” she said. “One particular incident involved a fundamentalist church in Oregon. One hundred ninety-one letters were written to me to tell me that I was going to hell, and they wanted to help me get there soon. The letters were supposed to be to me, but someone goofed and gave my sister’s address to the authors. So, my very protective younger sister responded to each of the 191 letters with a hand-written warning that she would hunt down anyone who touched me.”
Back in Montgomery, Moore sparked national headlines when he openly defied the federal appeals court and announced he would not remove the monument. His antics sparked an official inquiry, and in November 2003, an oversight body called the Alabama Court of the Judiciary removed Moore from office. The remaining justices quickly arranged for “Roy’s rock” to be whisked away from the courthouse.
Moore spent a few years traveling the Religious Right’s speaking circuit and running a group called the Foundation for Moral Law. He also tried his hand at writing poetry. (His magnum opus, “America the Beautiful,” contains these lines: “Your children wander aimlessly poisoned by cocaine/Choosing to indulge their lusts, when God has said abstain/From sea to shining sea this Nation has turned away/From teaching of God’s Law, and a need to always pray.”)
Moore sought the Republican nomination for governor in 2006 and 2010, but he failed both times. In 2012, he ran again for chief justice and won.
And it wasn’t long before Moore was in trouble again. In January 2016, Moore issued an “administrative order” instructing probate judges in Alabama to ignore the U.S. Supreme Court’s June 2015 decision in Obergefell v. Hodges that had the effect of legalizing marriage for same-sex couples nationwide. Once again, Moore was defying settled law.
Americans United and allied groups at the time were representing clients in the LGBTQ community who sought the right to marry. The federal judge overseeing AU’s case, Strawser v. Strange, had little patience for Moore’s stunts and made it clear that Alabama must abide by the Obergefell ruling.
But Moore simply refused to listen. Complaints were filed against him and, remarkably, Moore was removed from the Alabama high court for the second time by the same Alabama judicial oversight body that had kicked him off the court in 2003.
Moore made one last effort at public office in 2017 when he ran as a Republican for an open U.S. Senate seat. In a deep red state, Moore should have been a shoo-in. But during the campaign, a woman came forward with allegations that Moore had sexually assaulted her in 1979 when she was 14 and Moore was 32. Moore was defeated by Democrat Doug Jones in a resounding upset.
While all of this was going on, Maddox had assumed a lower profile and was focusing on her law practice. She had moved to Mobile, a larger city about 100 miles away from Brewton, because, as she told Church & State “I didn’t feel safe in my own house.”
After Moore’s removal from the court in 2003, things quieted down for Maddox, and her practice soon recovered. But in 2012 when Moore ran again for chief justice, Maddox could not stay silent. When it looked like the Democratic Party wasn’t going to put up a candidate to run against Moore, Maddox mounted a write-in campaign. That stirred up her opponents again.
“That summer,” she said, “I got harassed – some people smashing my windows, leaving threatening messages and stuff like that. I eventually suspended my campaign after the Democrats finally put up a candidate. Moore won that election. At that point, I knew it was time to leave Alabama.”
Maddox now lives in the Washington, D.C., area. She teaches and practices law and, in her spare time, adopts and fosters special-needs dogs.
She’s rightly proud of her involvement in the case.
“The lesson that we take from our battle with Moore is that we have to protect the rule of law, whatever the personal cost,” Maddox said. “Our Ten Commandments case resulted not only in the removal of the 2.5-ton rock, but removal of our chief justice from the bench and from the practice of law. Moore defied a federal court’s order, and he was punished for it. The message that we got from that result was clear and easily understood: The days of massive resistance in Alabama are finally gone.
“Unfortunately,” Maddox concluded, “I think the future holds other new and dangerous challenges. We have a Supreme Court that does not seem to respect the bright line between religion and government. It is up to each of us to be sure that the wall of separation between religion and government remains strong and protected.”