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STATE COURT ORDERS COMMANDMENTS’ REMOVAL ALL EIGHT COLLEAGUES OF ALA. CHIEF JUSTICE VOTE TO OVERRULE HIM
Lyle Denniston, Globe Correspondent
WASHINGTON – Chief Justice Roy S. Moore’s eight colleagues on the Alabama Supreme Court overruled him yesterday and ordered the removal of his Ten Commandments monument from the rotunda of the state courts building in Montgomery.
The unanimous order, signed by each of the associate justices, was intended to end a standoff between Moore and a federal judge, who ruled nine months ago that the chief justice had put up the display to promote religion in violation of the Constitution.
The saga over the 5,280-pound granite tablet, placed so that no one can miss it on entering the courthouse, has brought new visibility to a decades-long struggle by religious conservatives to restore the Ten Commandments to a prominent place in the nation’s public life, especially in government buildings.
Moore, who won election in 2000 after campaigning as the “Ten Commandments Judge,” repeatedly has said he would not remove the monument despite several orders from US District Judge Myron Thompson. Thompson had set a deadline of Wednesday at midnight for his order to be followed and threatened $5,000-a-day fines if it was ignored. The US Supreme Court refused to intervene to keep the monument in the rotunda.
The chief justice continued his defiance in a speech yesterday to supporters outside the courthouse, saying he would not obey the removal mandate. “I have been ordered to do something I cannot do, violate my conscience,” he said.
Under Alabama law, Moore has administrative control over his court’s activity, and his colleagues had not previously challenged his use of that power to place the Ten Commandments in the building’s most public space. But state law also allows the associate justices to “countermand” action by the chief justice by a majority of five votes, and that is what his colleagues did yesterday, unanimously.
The justices ordered plywood partitions put up around the monument yesterday morning. But Moore, returning from a funeral out of town, ordered the partitions to be removed.
Later in the day, state Attorney General Bill Pryor, who has supported the idea of the Commandments’ display even while saying he would not support Moore’s disobedience of a court order, notified Judge Thompson that justices had issued their command to the building manager to “take all steps necessary to comply with the [Thompson] injunction as soon as practicable.”
Chastising Moore, his colleagues said in the order that “the justices of this court are bound by solemn oath to follow the law, whether they agree or disagree with it.” They said refusal to obey a legitimate order of a federal court “would impair the authority and ability of all of the courts of this
state to enforce their judgments.”
The associate justices also pointed out that Thompson had said he would impose “substantial, escalating, daily fines” if the court or its officers disobeyed the mandate to move the monument to a private space, such as Moore’s chambers at the courthouse.
There was no indication when the monument actually would be moved out of the rotunda. A conservative religious organization, the Christian Defense Coalition, has been holding daily rallies at the courthouse, and its leader, the Rev. Patrick Mahoney, has vowed to resist any effort to move the display. Nearly two dozen protesters were arrested Wednesday night when they refused to leave the courthouse at closing time.
Supporters of the display also have threatened political reprisals against Moore’s colleagues on the court. The justices are elected to six-year terms, which are staggered so they do not all run the same year.
Whatever happens to the monument in the next few days, the drama will not end for the chief justice. Yesterday morning, groups that had sued to challenge the Ten Commandments display formally asked Thompson to hold Moore in contempt and to impose heavy fines for his refusal to follow Thompson’s orders. Moore also faces an ethics investigation by a state judicial commission, potentially threatening his ouster from the bench.
The Rev. Barry W. Lynn, executive director of one of the groups seeking a contempt finding, Americans United for Separation of Church and State, said it was not clear what might happen to the contempt motion if the other justices achieve the removal of the monument.
At that point, though, Lynn added, “there will be this period where he has been in continuous defiance of the order,” and that should amount to contempt.
Thompson is scheduled to hold a telephone conference call this morning with lawyers on all sides of the controversy, and is expected to give some indication of what he intends to do about the contempt question, according to Lynn.
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