Religious experts have expressed widely differing views on whether it is legal for a two-ton monument of the Ten Commandments to remain in the lobby of the Alabama state judicial building.
A pair of experts gave testimony in federal court in Montgomery this week in a lawsuit against Chief Justice Roy Moore of the state’s Supreme Court. The suit charges that Moore’s placement of the monument in the judicial building is a violation of the First Amendment’s protection against the establishment of religion.
The case, in its second week, was brought by the American Civil Liberties Union, Americans for Separation of Church and State and the Southern Poverty Law Center. Lawyers for the groups are attempting to force the removal of the monument.
Michael Novak, director of social and political studies at the American Enterprise Institute, a Washington, D.C., think tank, said the chief justice’s monument is “totally and thoroughly consistent” with the founders’ views on church-state separation and wouldn’t have offended them.”
“I believe the judicial building is the right place for such a monument,” Novak told U.S. District Judge Myron Thompson’s court.
Novak went on to assert that the framers of the Constitution wanted to acknowledge as the source of all individual liberties the Judeo-Christian God.
“The blessings of liberty will not be present unless there is a frequent recurrence to fundamental principles. Otherwise it is like a comet that blazes and is forgotten,” said Novak, an expert on religion and culture. “The government should consistently note the source of that belief, because if it weakens in public it becomes ineffectual.”
But Edwin Gaustad, a professor emeritus of history and religion at the University of California Riverside, disagreed, saying James Madison and Thomas Jefferson – the two men most responsible for the First Amendment – believed government and religion ought to be kept as far apart as possible.
“Chief Justice Moore was saying that it was written to protect the role of God in government, that the purpose of the First Amendment was to protect the government to make public proclamations on God,” Gaustad said. “I disagree. It was to protect the religious liberties of the citizens of the new nation.”
“If you consult any reputable historian, they would find it a gross misstatement of the purpose of the First Amendment,” he continued. “It is to protect the religious liberties of its citizens, not promote a public piety.”
Moore had the monument, along with other references to God, installed in the rotunda of the Judicial Building six months after he was elected chief justice in 2000.
Plaintiffs have testified earlier that Moore has made the Judicial Building more of a church than a courthouse.
During Gaustad’s testimony, Judge Thompson asked him if it would help if “there was a disclaimer at the bottom of the monument saying, ‘We’re not compelling anyone to believe.'”
“The disclaimer would help. Moving it to private property would help more,” said Gaustad.
Attorneys gave their closing arguments yesterday. There was no word on when a ruling was expected.
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