Published November 03, 2003
WASHINGTON – The Supreme Court (search) refused Monday to enter the long-running fight over an enormous monument depicting the Ten Commandments (search) and the judge who wants to keep the biblical list on display in an Alabama courthouse.
The court quietly rejected appeals from suspended Alabama Chief Justice Roy Moore (search), who had argued that the monument properly acknowledges "God as the source of the community morality so essential to a self-governing society."
Moore was suspended as chief justice for defying a federal court order to remove the monument. He goes on trial before the Alabama Court of the Judiciary on Nov. 12 on face judicial ethics charges for his refusal to comply with the order.
The Supreme Court's action is not a ruling on the thorny question of whether the Ten Commandments may be displayed in government buildings or in the public square. It merely reflects the high court's unwillingness to hear the appeal.
Lower courts have splintered on the issue, allowing depictions of the Ten Commandments in some instances and not in others.
Moore challenged the high court to settle the question once and for all, and accused the justices of ducking their responsibility to clarify murky questions about the constitutional principle of separation of church and state.
The Supreme Court recently took on another divisive case about government and religion. Sometime next year, the justices will hear the case of a California atheist who objects to the phrase "one nation under God" in the Pledge of Allegiance.
The Constitution sets out no absolute divide between God and government, and Moore argued that his Ten Commandments display was in keeping with the religious vision of the nation's founders.
The First Amendment guarantees that government will not actively endorse religion in general or favor one faith over another. The same amendment also guarantees an individual's right to worship as he pleases.
The Ten Commandments contain both religious and secular directives, including the familiar bans on stealing, killing and adultery. The Bible says God gave the list to Moses.
Two years ago, the high court divided bitterly over whether to hear another case testing whether a different Ten Commandments monument could be displayed outside a civic building.
The court opted at that time not to hear that case, but four justices nonetheless staked out a position on the issue.
The three most conservative justices said they found nothing wrong with display of that monument outside the building housing local courts and prosecutors in Elkhart, Ind. The setting reflected the cultural, historical and legal significance of the commandments, Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist wrote for himself and Justices Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas.
The monument "simply reflects the Ten Commandments' role in the development of our legal system," Rehnquist wrote for the three. He noted that "a carving of Moses holding the Ten Commandments, surrounded by representations of other historical legal figures, adorns the frieze on the south wall of our courtroom."
At the opposite ideological end of the court, Justice John Paul Stevens wrote that the words "I am the Lord thy God," in the first line of the Elkhart monument's inscription are "rather hard to square with the proposition that the monument expresses no particular religious preference," Stevens wrote then.
In the Alabama case, lower federal courts ruled that Moore violated the Constitution's ban on government promotion of religion by placing the 5,300-pound granite monument in the rotunda of the state Judicial Building.
In two appeals to the Supreme Court, Moore argued that lower federal courts do not have authority over a state's chief justice.
Lawyers for Moore's legal opponents did not file any response to his appeals.
In August the Alabama monument was wheeled to an out-of-the-way storage room. Two weeks of protests by Moore's supporters followed. In recent weeks, demonstrators have carried the cause to the sidewalk outside the Supreme Court, with one protester dressed as Moses and carrying cardboard tablets.
The case is Moore v. Glassroth 03-468.