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Pryor offenses: Bill Pryor has led a religious right crusade against church-state separation in Alabama. Now the Bush administration wants him on the federal appeals court.
Bill Pryor was preaching to the choir.
It was April 12, 1997, and Pryor, Alabama’s young attorney general, basked on the stage before a spirited gathering of thousands who had come to Montgomery to support a state judge being sued for displaying the Ten Commandments in his courtroom.
“God has chosen, through his son Jesus Christ, this time, this place for all Christians-Protestants, Catholics and Orthodox-to save our country and save our courts,” bellowed Pryor before the wildly receptive throng.
Pryor pledged to use all of the powers of his office to defend Judge Roy Moore. In the months and years to come, he did just that, filing briefs on Moore’s behalf and arguing in the media that Moore, who is now chief justice of the Alabama Supreme Court, has the right to display religious symbols in court.
Six years later, Pryor is still the state’s attorney general and still defending Moore, whose case is now in the federal courts. But soon Pryor may be elevated to a much more powerful position and given an influential platform for his extreme views.
On April 9, President George W. Bush nominated Pryor to a lifetime spot on the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. The announcement immediately sparked opposition from state and national civil rights and civil liberties organizations.
Continuing his pattern of nominating fight-wing ideologues to the federal bench, Bush may have outdone himself with the nomination of Pryor. Not only has Pryor loudly defended Judge Roy Moore’s installation of a gigantic granite Ten Commandments monument within the Alabama Supreme Court building, he has also raised the ire of reproductive rights groups by referring to the Supreme Court’s landmark Roe v. Wade ruling as “the worst abomination of constitutional law in our history.”
“Bill Pryor is a determined foe of the separation of church and state,” said Barry W. Lynn, executive director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State. “His contempt for this fundamental constitutional principle disqualifies him from the federal bench. We will staunchly oppose his promotion to a lifetime seat on the appeals court.”
Pryor, frequently described in the Alabama press as a protege of the state’s conservative U.S. Sen. Jeff Sessions, has built a reputation for being hostile to the constitutional principle of church-state separation as well as an ardent advocate of states’ rights. In a mid-April editorial headlined “Unfit to Judge,” The Washington Post noted that Pryor “is probably best known as a zealous advocate of relaxing the wall between church and state.”
The Post’s critique of Pryor came quickly after Bush nominated the 41-year-old to a seat on the 11th Circuit. Like many of Bush’s federal court nominees, Pryor is a member of the Federalist Society, a nationwide network of attorneys that advocate for a federal bench made up of judges in the mold of Supreme Court justices Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas.
Because of Pryor’s comments before Federalist Society events as well as the Supreme Court, where he argued that Alabama could not be sued based on violations of federal disabilities and civil rights laws, among others, his nomination has ignited opposition from an array of public interest groups.
It is Pryor’s reputation as an outspoken, often confrontational, advocate of a public square infused with religion that concerns church-state watchdog groups like Americans United.
Pryor’s hostility to the separation of church and state was laid bare during his defense of Moore, who became a darling of the Religious Right for his promotion of the Ten Commandments in courtrooms.
In the mid-1990s, Moore was a low-ranking state judge in Etowah County. He made it a practice to open his court sessions with Christian prayers and posted over his bench-
visible to the jury box-two hand-carved wooden plaques of the Ten Commandments. Etowah residents, represented by civil liberties groups, sued the judge, arguing that his religious actions in the public courtroom violated the separation of church and state.
Pryor and then-Gov. Fob James came to Moore’s defense, even seeking a court declaration that Moore had a right to bring his religion into the courtroom in the form of the Ten Commandments without violating the Constitution.
The lawsuit against Moore sparked a brouhaha, to say the least. The Etowah County judge quickly became a hero among local and national Religious Right groups. More than 20,000 people gathered in Montgomery in April 1997 as a show of support for Moore. Pryor joined James, then-Christian Coalition leader Ralph Reed and GOP presidential candidate Alan Keyes at the Moore rally.
In February of the same year, Pryor told The Gadsden Times that the lawsuit against Moore was “astounding.” Pryor proclaimed that the “willing acknowledgment of God by government” is constitutional and asserted that the Decalogue is displayed in the U.S. Supreme Court building.
Pryor made similar comments two years later at a forum hosted by the Dallas chapter of the Federalist Society. During a debate over the placement of the Ten Commandments in public buildings with a professor of church-state studies at Baylor University, Pryor said, “The Ten Commandments are recognized not just by Christians but by all of the world’s three great religions.” He also reiterated his belief that the First Amendment does not prevent government from “acknowledging God or our Judeo-Christian heritage.”
The Moore courtroom fiasco erupted not long after Pryor had been appointed the state’s attorney general in 1997 by James. Pryor was 34 and had only been out of law school for a decade. The young attorney general quickly provided Alabama and national media with some controversial legal musings.
For example, in March 1997, Pryor told The Alabama Baptist that Supreme Court precedent does not always need to be adhered to by state officials. The newspaper reported that Pryor did not say that the executive branch could ignore the ruling of the judicial branch, but he said there are ways the executive branch “does not have to implement rulings with which it disagrees.”
“One of the things I think is critical in a constitutional democracy is that executive branch and legislative branch officials feel free to criticize court rulings with which they disagree,” Pryor said. “There are those who believe that when the Supreme Court of the United States announces a ruling, it is on par with the Constitution itself, and I am sorry, it is not.”
Pryor also told the Baptist publication that religion and politics “need to be intertwined.”
A month after that interview, Pryor defended Moore’s practice of only allowing Christian prayers to open his court sessions. According to an AP report, Pryor admitted that he was unsure whether the Constitution provided the same religious liberty rights to non-Christians as it does Christians.
“It’s not been an issue in this case,” Pryor said.
The lawsuit against Moore was eventually tossed out of state court on technicalities. The controversy, however, helped make Moore a statewide name, thereby launching his effort to become the chief justice of the Alabama Supreme Court. Moore campaigned as the “Ten Commandments judge” and promised if elected he would bring the Ten Commandments into the state building that houses the high court.
At that time TV preacher D. James Kennedy and his Coral Ridge Ministries got behind Moore’s campaign and has defended and raised money for Moore ever since. Moore easily won election in November 2000. In mid-summer 2001, Moore oversaw and commissioned the placement of a large granite monument with the Ten Commandments engraved on top within the building’s rotunda. That action drew a lawsuit from Americans United, the ACLU of Alabama and the Southern Poverty Law Center.
Pryor immediately came to Moore’s defense again, deputizing attorneys affiliated with Religious Right legal groups and declaring, “The display of the Ten Commandments in the rotunda of the judicial building does not violate the First Amendment.”
In fall 2002, a U.S. district court invalidated Moore’s action on church-state grounds.
The attorneys chosen by Pryor include Stephen Melchior, who has managed Moore’s legal defense fund, Herbert Titus, founding dean of the College of Law at TV preacher Pat Robertson’s Regent University, and John Eidsmoe, professor at a Montgomery law school not accredited by the American Bar Association. The group of attorneys will represent Moore’s appeal before the 11th Circuit.
Pryor informed the Associated Press that the state would not pay for Moore’s unique legal team, but that private funds being raised by TV preacher Kennedy would cover the legal fees. Melchior also told the AP that the lawsuit against Moore promoted “the most brazen form of intolerance and censorship.”
Pryor’s vigorous defense of Moore’s public displays of the Ten Commandments is not his only venture across the church-state line. A reporter with The Birmingham News noted in a January 2003 report that Pryor has “taken strident positions supporting the right to student-led prayer in public schools.” The Washington Post’s April 11 editorial also pointed out that Pryor had “teamed up with one of Pat Robertson’s organizations in a court effort to defend student-led prayer in the public schools.”
The Birmingham News and The Washington Post were referring to a situation of pervasive religious practices in DeKalb County, Ala., public schools that had been ongoing at least since 1993.
In 1997, U.S. District Judge Ira DeMent issued an order barring DeKalb County school officials from sponsoring religious activity in the classrooms and declaring a 1993 state prayer law a violation of the separation of church and state. DeMent concluded that the Alabama law essentially permitted state-organized prayer in the public schools. In declaring the state’s 1993 law unconstitutional, DeMent noted that “when prayer is introduced into a public school curriculum, students who find the particular prayer, or prayer in general, offensive cannot express their dissent by walking away or verbally objecting.”
Gov. James went ballistic, claiming that the First Amendment was never meant to apply to the states and urging school officials to flout the federal judge’s ruling. Though Pryor publicly distanced himself from some of James’ more over-the-top rhetoric, he nonetheless recruited two attorneys from Pat Robertson’s legal arm, the American Center for Law and Justice, to help him argue before the 11th Circuit that DeMent’s ruling should be reversed. Indeed, in a Nov. 7, 1997, press release announcing the appointment of Robertson’s lawyers, Pryor, gushed that, “Jay Sekulow and Stuart Roth bring the best legal minds in the country to this case.”
In a 40-page brief filed before the 11th Circuit, Pryor and the ACLJ charged that DeMent, a Republican appointed to the bench by the first President Bush, was simply hostile to religion, seeking a “relentless extirpation of all contact between government and religion.”
Pamela Sumners, a Birmingham attorney who argued before the 11th Circuit that DeMent’s ruling should stand, told the Freedom Forum that federal courts had previously ruled that “you can’t come into court and accuse a judge who has acted to preserve [church-state separation] of being hostile toward religion.” Sumners added that she thought it was “wholly repugnant that the state would hire the Christian Coalition to help out.”
At an Oct. 2, 1999, Christian Coalition gathering in Washington, D.C., Pryor described the prayer controversy in DeKalb County schools as a struggle against “moral relativism—the notion that there are no universal or moral standards.” He proclaimed that perspective was at odds with the “founding principles of this nation” and fueled by “the exclusion of religious expression.” Pryor again derided DeMent’s ruling as hostile to religion.
The 11th Circuit eventually upheld more than 90 percent of DeMent’s order and his declaration that the 1993 Alabama law was unconstitutional.
In 2000, Pryor also derided the U.S. Supreme Court decision invalidating prayer before public high school football games in Texas. In a 63 ruling, the high court ruled that the school district’s “Prayer at Football Games” policy provided for a majoritarian election that did “nothing to protect the minority; indeed, it likely serves to intensify their offense.”
Pryor had directed his office to join in a friend-of-the-court brief with Texas and other state officials arguing that public school students should have a First Amendment right to vote on whether to include prayer before football games. Pryor told the AP that he agreed with the three dissenting justices that the ruling bristled “with hostility to all things religious in public life.” He also said the ruling would not alter Alabama public school practices of allowing students to vote on whether to include prayer in school functions.
The opposition to Pryor’s nomination to a lifetime seat on the 11th Circuit is, not surprisingly, drawing the ire of social conservatives.
Following The Washington Post’s editorial calling Pryor’s nomination a dramatic “escalation of the judicial nomination wars,” the National Review and the ACLJ quickly came to Pryor’s defense.
Writing for the National Review, Quin Hillyer, a columnist for the Mobile Register, refers to Pryor as “brilliant,” quotes a law school buddy of his who said Pryor does not have a “political bone in his body,” and proclaims Pryor is the latest victim of “the Left’s character-assassination machine.”
Sekulow, the ACLJ’s chief counsel, in a letter to the Post, trotted out the tired line of media “liberal bias” and defended Pryor as a guardian of constitutional rights of “all students in Alabama.”
But Hank Caddell, a longtime civil rights attorney in Mobile, in an interview on National Public Radio in mid-May, took issue with Pryor’s supporters.
“If you had gone and designed a candidate for a judicial appointment who would be most destructive to the areas of civil rights, environmental protection, separation of church and state, reproductive rights,” said Caddell, “you would be hard-pressed to come up with any candidate other than Bill Pryor.”
June 07, 2013
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