Archive for Friday, August 29, 2003

Judge can’t hold religion above the law

August 29, 2003

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— Earlier this summer a young Iraqi went to one of the Islamic courts springing up in the holy city of Najaf to confess to the judge that he'd killed his mother. She'd dishonored the family by committing adultery, he said to the cleric-turned-judge. The son later explained that he'd chosen to make his case to the self-proclaimed Islamic court because it would "rule according to our Shiite traditions. This is the true court. This is the ruling of God."

It was a chilling story to Americans wary about the future of Iraq. In the troubled wake of Saddam, we are worrying over the struggle between democracy and theocracy. We are watching it play out in the streets and in the courts.

I never found out how the radical jurists who use the Koran as the law book ruled in this matricide. But I've been thinking of them for the past week as people gathered outside an Alabama courthouse to protect "Roy's Rock." After all, Americans have our own struggles with theocracy and democracy.

The protesters in Montgomery are fans of Chief Justice Roy Moore, who has been dubbed the "Moses of Alabama" though his namesake would have had trouble carrying a 5,280-pound set of tablets down from the mount.

A West Point graduate, a man who herded cattle in Australia and trained as a kickboxer, Moore became known as the "Ten Commandments Judge" after placing rosewood tablets behind his bench in 1995. He was elected chief justice of the Alabama Supreme Court in 2000 on a platform that read, "Still the Ten Commandments Judge."

Was that election a moment of Judeo-Christian democracy? The majority vote for religious justice?

Two years ago, Moore had his huge monument installed in the rotunda of the courthouse. But ultimately, a federal judge ruled that it was "nothing less than an obtrusive year-round religious display." When the other eight members of the Supreme Court said it must be removed, Moore refused to obey. Now suspended, he will face a hearing of his own.

The Chief Justice as Chief Protester is an odd role reversal. But then his conservative followers sing "We Shall Overcome" wearing T-shirts with mottos like, "Homosexuality is a sin, Islam is a lie, abortion is murder."

This is not just an Alabama thing. The movement to put the Ten Commandments into the public square is more active now than at any time since Cecil B. DeMille gave away 4,000 granite tablets as a promotion for the Charlton Heston movie. There have been dozens of protests against the removal of plaques and statues. Some of the same people once found outside abortion clinics have moved on to courthouse lawns.

The Ten Commandments is a crowd-pleasing cause. A huge majority of Americans regard these words as a map for a good life, though an equally large majority has trouble reciting them. In this Disney culture, it's entirely possible more people can name the seven dwarfs -- including Doc -- than the Ten Commandments.

Americans seem to want the Commandments displayed even if they don't want them all enforced. When was the last time we arrested people at the local mall for dishonoring the Sabbath? When was adultery last a felony?

The Ten Commandments grace the walls of the U.S. Supreme Court building without controversy. Moses stands along with Confucius and Muhammad in a frieze celebrating the history of the law. But Roy's Rock is about as nonsectarian as a sign over a judicial bench reading "What Would Jesus Do?"

Whenever I write about the wall separating church and state, someone dares me to find it in the Bill of Rights. Indeed, the Constitution says the government cannot establish religion and must protect the freedom to practice any religion or, indeed, no religion.

We've had bitter fights over when the state is endorsing religion. Prayer in the schools? Creches in front of the library? We've had people who believe that government-enforced neutrality is really hostility. Jerry Falwell calls it "religious genocide."

But these days we Americans look at ourselves in the global light of places like Iraq, Iran, Afghanistan. Our breed of democracy does more than let the majority rule. It also protects the minority -- the Zoroastrian, Zen Buddhist, Hindu, Atheist, Muslim -- and lets us live together.

One protester carrying a 10-foot-tall cross in front of the Alabama courthouse said, "Maybe they can move the monument, but they can't take it out of our hearts." But that, of course, is where it belongs.

Now the monument has been removed. As for the Ten Commandments Judge? Roy Moore has said that religion is above the law, that his monument means more than his job: "To do my duty, I must obey God. ... I cannot violate my conscience." May he follow his path -- and his monument -- right out of the courthouse.

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