I arrived at the AU office on Nov. 18 knowing that it was going to be a busy day.
A federal district court judge in Montgomery, Ala., had announced that he would issue a ruling in AU's lawsuit against Alabama Supreme Court Chief Justice Roy Moore, who last year erected a 5,280-pound Ten Commandments monument in the lobby of the Alabama Judicial Building.
U.S. District Judge Myron Thompson didn't waste any time. At 10 a.m. on the dot (9 a.m. in Alabama), the decision began sliding through our fax machine.
Americans United Legal Director Ayesha Khan had worked on the case with Morris Dees of the Southern Poverty Law Center and attorneys with the American Civil Liberties Union of Alabama. We all agreed that the trial had gone well and believed Judge Thompson would rule our way. Sure enough, the decision was a clear victory for our side and a strong affirmation of the importance of church-state separation.
Cable talk shows wanted to discuss the case that evening. On CNN's "Crossfire," conservative host Tucker Carlson asked me to look at a large photo. He said, "Not only are the Ten Commandments in a courtroom in Alabama, this picture right here of Moses, with the actual tablet, do you know where that is from?"
Of course I knew where it was from the U.S. Supreme Court building. I've seen it a thousand times there.
I told Carlson that. He replied, "Why aren't you picking on it?" My comeback was simple, "Well, could you read the third [commandment] there, please?"
Carlson's reply was rather lame: "I don't have my contacts in."
The most powerful contacts in the world wouldn't have made it possible for Carlson to read the third commandment, because none of the wording is included in the artistic rendering. Moses is depicted cradling two tablets on a frieze that also includes historical lawgivers like Hammurabi, Solomon, Confucius, Muhammad, Napoleon and the Roman emperor Augustus. The display represents the evolution of the law over the centuries. It's not intended to promote religion.
I tried to explain the difference to Carlson. "Judge Moore's monument is a monument to intolerance," I said. "It's the promotion of his own version of what the Ten Commandments ought to read.... But it is nothing like that phrase which you can't even read."
Carlson still didn't get it. "I want to get the Lynn standard here," he said. "So it is OK to have the Ten Commandments...so long as you can't read the lettering."
I tried again. The frieze, I pointed out, "also has Confucius...because that's a piece of a series of pictures of famous law-givers. It's nothing like the promotion by a right-wing judge of his particular religious viewpoint." The "Lynn test," as Carlton put it, contains many other factors, but frankly, the audience seemed convinced that at least for starters there was some kind of difference between a part of a sculpted frieze with literally no words on it and a multi-ton monolith placed as the centerpiece of a state's major judicial center.
The next hour Ayesha was on Fox News Channel's "The O'Reilly Factor." O'Reilly claimed to have an open mind but really only asked variations of a single question: "What religion is being established here?" His point was that the Ten Commandments have relevance for Jews, Muslims and Christians, so Moore's display couldn't be establishing one religion.
It's hard to give a history lesson on talk TV, and to point out, for example, that the First Amendment prohibits government from establishing one religion, three religions or 50 religions. But Ayesha quite effectively pointed out that Judge Moore has repeatedly said, including in court as a witness, precisely what his monument was intended to promote: God's sovereignty over the state.
Moore is a fundamentalist Christian. He chose the Protestant King James Version of the Commandments to display in the form of an open book on the top of the monument. Also in the court record is a comment by Moore in which he says that only Christianity is a "religion." All those wrong-headed systems like Buddhism, Hinduism and Islam are not to be granted such status in Moore's mind because they do not recognize "the God of the Holy Scriptures." Judge Thompson rightly found these views shocking, writing that they are "simply put, incorrect and religiously offensive."
Talk show hosts should quit trying to find excuses for Moore and simply acknowledge him for what he is: A judge on a religious crusade. Judge Moore knew exactly what he was doing and exactly what message he wanted to send when he had that monument erected. He readily admits he did it for religious reasons. In running for office as chief justice, Moore was quick to identify himself as the "Ten Commandments judge."
Despite rumors that Moore has his eye on a U.S. Senate seat, I don't think his actions are about political posturing. I believe Moore is a "true believer" in his faith. In fact, I'm so convinced of this that I told Sam Donaldson the next day that I thought Moore should resign from the court and find a new job. Moore's zeal and doctrinal certainty make him a poor fit for the bench, but they'd serve him well in another position say, a pulpit.
Barry W. Lynn is executive director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State.