Published August 21, 2003
GALLANT, Ala. – Alabama Chief Justice Roy Moore is in the fight of his life over a Ten Commandments monument, and his brother can't help but think how little has changed since they were kids growing up in this foothills town.
Then-11-year-old Roy had just caught a nice string of fish and was heading home to cook them up when a group of men stopped their car and demanded he hand the catch over. Instead of giving in, he stood his ground, with his fists clenched tightly in front of him.
"I'll have to say, as little as we was, Roy stood up to them," brother Jerry Moore recalls with a chuckle. "And they didn't get our fish."
Now, at 56, Roy Moore's fists are still raised. His defiance of a federal court order to remove the 5,300-pound commandments monument from the judicial building rotunda has thrust Alabama into a thorny debate over the separation of church and state.
Those who have known Moore through childhood, West Point, Vietnam, and a sometimes stormy legal career say the standoff is hardly surprising from a man who has never compromised when it comes to his faith.
But critics say he is using his bench as a pulpit to impose his religious values on others.
"Roy Moore lives in a world where there isn't any gray," says Auburn University (search) history professor J. Wayne Flynt. "And I think he really believes that is true — which makes him really scary."
Flynt says it is understandable that the man waging this battle should have sprung from northeast Alabama's Etowah County (search), a bastion of religious conservatism that he says exemplifies the "blue collar populism" embodied in the state motto: "We Dare Defend our Rights."
The oldest of five children, Moore grew up in houses without toilets, bagging groceries at the Piggly Wiggly to supplement his father's wages as an itinerant construction worker.
At the Gallant First Baptist Church, Moore's pastor gave him a King James Bible he still carries today. Instead of the Ten Commandments, a framed copy of the church covenant hung on the wall.
The Moore children went to Sunday school and played on the church ball teams, but there was no one drumming the Bible into their heads, says Jerry Moore, 11 months Roy's junior.
"Really, to tell you the truth, we was just plain, old country folks," he says. "It wasn't one of them things, preach, preach, preach, seven days a week."
Still, Roy read incessantly and could quote long passages of Scripture by heart, he says with unveiled admiration.
Thomas Guest, president of the Etowah County High School Class of 1965, remembers Moore carrying all of his books from room to room so he would always be ready to study — or, at least, "to demonstrate studying at every opportunity."
"His ambition knew no limits," says Guest, now a Florida psychologist.
Moore was president of the student body his senior year and represented the school at the Alabama Boys' State. His peers pegged him as most likely to succeed.
When Moore got his appointment to West Point, his father borrowed $300 to get him there. Dick Jarman, who was in the "Beast Barracks" with Moore, remembers the future jurist vividly.
After a forced march in the blazing heat with full combat packs, the whole squad would fall out panting on the ground. Jarman remembers looking up and seeing Moore standing there, fingers interlaced, lips moving in prayer.
"We would say, `Roy, you've got to sit down and get some rest here,"' Jarman says. "`I mean, you know God's going to help you to some extent. But you've got to do a little bit of it for yourself."'
While the other cadets were figuring out ways to go drinking in town, Moore was leading Bible classes. But, Jarman adds, "he never proselytized or tried to convert anybody."
Moore sent part of his meager allowance — half a second-lieutenant's pay — home to his family. When his father died suddenly in his sophomore year, Moore seriously considered dropping out to help out at home.
In Vietnam, Moore's bible seemed to be the Army handbook. The men of the 188th Military Police Company derisively called him "Captain America" because of his insistence on regulation haircuts and constant salutes, and some of the men talked seriously about "fragging" him.
"His policies damn near got him killed in Vietnam," says Barrey Hall, who served under Moore. "He was a strutter."
After serving his tour, Moore studied law at the University of Alabama. He was deputy district attorney in Etowah County from 1977 until 1982, when he lost a bitter election for circuit judge. Following the election, Moore spent 18 months soul searching, training as a kick boxer and working as a cattleman in Australia.
It was around this time that Moore carved a little wood-burned miniature of the Ten Commandments that he kept hanging in his office in downtown Gadsden. That is, until Moore became a circuit judge and he moved the plaque into his courtroom.
In 1995, the American Civil Liberties Union (search) sued Moore, claiming the plaque constituted an unlawful establishment of religion. It took three years, but the Alabama Supreme Court dismissed the lawsuit on technical grounds, never ruling on the plaque's legality.
The case made Moore the "Ten Commandments Judge" and turned him into something of a Christian folk hero, winning awards from national religious organizations and doing something most judges avoid — speaking out on the issues.
Moore said in a 1997 magazine interview: "We've turned the Constitution and the First Amendment from a shield to protect us into a sword to deprive us of our civil and religious rights."
In a widely published poem titled, "America the Beautiful," Moore warned his fellow Americans that the country under President Clinton was heading down the wrong path.
"America the Beautiful, or so you used to be.
"Land of the Pilgrims' pride; I'm glad they'll never see.
"Babies piled in dumpsters, Abortion on demand,
"Oh, sweet land of liberty, your house is on the sand. ..."
Moore rode his newfound fame into the chief justice's chair in 2000. When, in the dead of night on July 31, 2001, Moore had the 2-ton Ten Commandments monument installed in the Supreme Court building, the ACLU sued again.
U.S. District Judge Myron Thompson declared the display unconstitutional. After the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals upheld that ruling, Thompson gave the state — not just Moore — until Wednesday to remove it or face daily fines of up to $5,000. It was not removed but a wooden barrier was erected Thursday, concealing it, as officials pondered their next move.
As Moore appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court, protesters from across the country flocked to Alabama in his defense, kneeling in prayer on the courthouse steps. Some were arrested after refusing to disperse.
"He claims to be a man who cares a great deal about religion, but is allowing the Ten Commandments to be the star attraction in a circus," says Ayesha Khan, an attorney for Americans United for Separation of Church and State (search), which joined the ACLU in seeking the monument's removal.
Jerry Moore says his brother might never have erected the monument, had others not pushed the issue.
"Roy's a fighter," he says. "You don't push him, because he'll fight back. It's like putting kindling on a fire, you know."
Moore declined repeated requests by The Associated Press for an interview. But at a rally in Montgomery last weekend, he told a crowd of several thousand supporters that he would be guilty of treason if he didn't fight for the monument.
"Let's get this straight," he told the assembly. "It's about the acknowledgment of God."
There is no denying that Moore's stand in the courthouse doors has played well among the folks back home.
Pastor Phillip Ellen of Crosspoint Community Church in Gadsden has known the pugnacious Moore since high school. He says the ACLU has picked the wrong guy to tangle with.
"If he plays you in checkers, he's gonna beat you in checkers," Ellen says. "If he plays you in the rule of law, he's gonna go by the rule. There's no compromise. He's not going to change."