Trial over Alabama Ten Commandments monument ends
By The Associated Press
MONTGOMERY, Ala. An attorney seeking to remove a Ten Commandments monument from Alabama's Judicial Building told a federal judge yesterday that the state's chief justice installed it to promote his own religious beliefs.
"This is a question of whether the politically powerful can impose their views on others," said Southern Poverty Law Center attorney Danielle Lipow.
But lawyers for Chief Justice Roy Moore, a conservative Christian who says the commandments are the moral foundation of American law, argued that the monument is simply an acknowledgment of God and does not force anyone to follow Moore's religious beliefs.
"It's a monument that sits there and doesn't tell anyone to do anything," said Moore's lead attorney, Stephen Melchior of Cheyenne, Wyo.
The seven-day trial, which concluded yesterday, came in a lawsuit asking U.S. District Judge Myron Thompson to order removal of the 5,300-pound granite monument.
There have been conflicting federal court rulings on similar church-state issues recently and legal experts have said the Alabama case may be a key part of an eventual landmark U.S. Supreme Court decision.
Thompson said he expected to rule by Nov. 18 and believed the main issue was "if government can acknowledge God."
Melchior agreed and told Thompson that should be a simple issue to resolve.
"God is the source of our liberty," Melchior said. "If the state doesn't acknowledge God, the state is in a position to say, 'You know those inalienable rights, forget about it.'"
But Ayesha Khan, attorney for Americans United for Separation of Church and State, told Thompson the case is about more than just acknowledging God.
"This case is about whether God can be acknowledged in this instance and in this way," Khan said. She contends the constitutional ban on government endorsements of religion is being violated by Moore's monument.
Moore spent more than two days on the witness stand, saying he placed the monument in the rotunda on the night of July 31, 2001, partly because he was concerned with a moral decline of the United States. He blamed much of that decline on federal court rulings, including the U.S. Supreme Court decision to ban prayer in public schools.
(In its 1962 decision Engel v. Vitale, the U.S. Supreme Court barred only state-sponsored prayer in public schools.)
Coming out of the courthouse into a chilly rain yesterday, the chief justice said, "It's been a long trial through rain and sunshine. I think we have gotten the issue before the court."
The lawsuit was filed by the Montgomery-based SPLC, the American Civil Liberties Union and Americans United for Separation of Church and State on behalf of three Alabama attorneys, who testified they were offended by the monument. It is easily seen when entering the judicial building.
One of the plaintiff attorneys, Stephen Glassroth of Montgomery, said he was impressed by the questions Thompson asked both sides during closing arguments.
"I feel absolutely fine that the proceedings were fair and the judge will give us full and fair consideration," Glassroth said.
For much of the trial, testimony resembled a history lesson with witnesses giving conflicting views of the religious beliefs and motivation of the country's Founding Fathers.
While some of the founders were undoubtedly religious men, Khan said in closing arguments that it's clear they would not have approved of a large monument featuring the Ten Commandments in the lobby of a state judicial building.
"The founders felt strongly that religion was sacred and government must neither hinder nor help it," Khan said.
But attorney Herbert Titus, also representing Moore, said the case was about "the history of this nation," which he said includes many examples of government acknowledging God.
Spectators including activists on both sides, news reporters and schoolchildren filled Thompson's courtroom through much of the trial.
Kevin Goodner, who teaches history and philosophy at Emerald Mountain Christian School in Montgomery, said it was important for his students to sit in on what could turn out to be a landmark case.
"I think this is a significant court case dealing with the question of who's in charge God or the state. I'm surprised there weren't more classes here," Goodner said.
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