Alabama state judge defying federal court on religion
WASHINGTON: The apparent unwillingness of a southern judge to abide by the decision of a federal court could lead to a constitutional crisis as to where state autonomy ends and the writ of the federal authority takes over.
The situation arises out of a federal court judgment asking the chief justice of the Alabama high court to remove a giant monument from his premises on which he has had inscribed the Bible’s Ten Commandments. Alabama lies at the heart of what is called the American “Bible Belt.”
Chief Justice Roy S Moore has so far refused to indicate whether he is going to honour the decision of the US Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit in Atlanta or not. He has suggested that the federal courts lack the power to force him to remove the religious monument. Two federal courts have declared the monument a violation of the First Amendment, which prohibits state establishments to display religious symbols.
US District Judge Myron H Thompson last week ordered the Alabama chief justice to remove the monument and pointed out that he would be held in contempt of court if he did not implement the orders by August 20. Justice Moore, who has made display of the commandments the centrepiece of his public legal career, seems to think a lawful court order is a matter for negotiation.
In an editorial on Monday, The Washington Post said, “Amazingly, Alabama Attorney General William H Pryor Jr – the state’s chief law enforcement officer and President Bush’s nominee for a seat on the 11th Circuit – has not troubled himself to say a word in defence of the rule of law. The chief justice’s antics would be little more than silliness, save for two big problems. First, they put Alabama’s judicial system behind the notion that contemporary American law flows from divinity, rather than from the votes of representatives elected by the people – that approaching a court is tantamount to approaching a church. Chief Justice Moore says the case is about whether the state can acknowledge God, but displaying the Ten Commandments in a courthouse does a lot more than that. It promotes a particular theology as somehow linked to the justice dispensed by the Alabama judiciary, which is precisely what the First Amendment forbids government to do.”
Justice Moore maintains the newspaper, in suggesting that he might respond with something other than swift compliance, challenges what has been an undisputed part of America’s constitutional fabric since the civil rights era’s desegregation decisions. The federal courts are the guardians of Americans’ constitutional liberties against state abuses, and state officials don’t get to reject that role when it doesn’t suit them. “The issue here is religious freedom, not voting rights or school desegregation, but the principle is the same: If Justice Moore can decide which federal court opinions he likes, nobody’s rights are safe from state officials who don’t believe in them,” adds the leading article.