MONTGOMERY, Ala. – Alabama Chief Justice Roy Moore (search) on Wednesday lost a last-minute appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court to save a Ten Commandments monument he installed in a judicial building, clearing the way for its removal.
The high court rejected Moore's emergency plea for a stay, declining to be drawn into a dispute over whether the 5,300-pound, granite monument violates the Constitution's ban on government promotion of religion.
After the court acted, Montgomery police handcuffed 21 Moore supporters who had kneeled and stood at the monument inside the building rotunda and refused to leave. They were taken to the Montgomery County Jail and charged with trespassing, said Chief Deputy Derrick Cunningham.
U.S. District Judge Myron Thompson (search) had set a midnight Wednesday deadline for the monument's removal. He was not expected to take immediate action to remove the display.
Several hundred supporters of Moore gathered on the judicial building steps Wednesday night for a rally. Patrick Mahoney, director of the Christian Defense Coalition (search), asked people to raise their hands if they were willing to lay down in front of the doors to keep the monument inside. Most hands went up.
Former presidential candidate Alan Keyes then delivered a fiery speech, saying the efforts of courts and government to stifle religion must end.
"This must end or freedom will end with it," Keyes said. "No longer can we tolerate this crime that is being done against our movement for almighty God."
Thompson has threatened $5,000-a-day fines if his order is ignored after the deadline. Attorneys who sued to force removal of the monument said they expect to file a contempt of court petition against Moore that Thompson may consider in a conference call Friday, setting the stage for fines.
"It's time for Roy's rock to roll," said Ayesha Khan, an attorney for Americans United for Separation of Church and State (search), one of the groups that sued.
Moore installed the monument two years ago in the middle of the night after being elected chief justice amid publicity of his support of the Ten Commandments. In Washington, D.C., one of Moore's attorneys, Phillip Jauregui, said the judge was sticking by his pledge to defy Thompson's order.
"The statement that the chief made last Thursday still stands," Jauregui said. Other Alabama officials could move the monument.
Moore issued a statement saying he still plans to appeal to the Supreme Court on the merits of the case.
Moore's lawyers told the justices in a filing that Moore should be allowed to "establish justice by acknowledging the guidance and favor of Almighty God, placed upon him by his oath of office and the Constitution of Alabama."
"This case is not about a monument, it's not about politics or religion, it's about the acknowledgment of God," Moore said on CBS' "The Early Show." "We must acknowledge God because our constitution says our justice system is established upon God."
The Supreme Court has never ruled on the constitutionality of such indoor and outdoor government displays. In 1980, the court barred Ten Commandments from classroom walls in public schools.
An appeals court had twice refused to give Moore a stay, setting up the plea at the high court.
"It's not like somebody's about to face execution, if the court doesn't enter a stay the person will be dead and the appeal will be moot," said David Frederick, a Washington, D.C., attorney who specializes in Supreme Court practice. "If the Supreme Court were to decide it's constitutional, it can always be put back."
Moore already has asked the Supreme Court to consider whether Thompson overstepped his bounds in the case, and a second appeal of the ruling in the Ten Commandments case is expected. Those could take months to resolve.