by Gene Owens
A prominent South Carolinian of the 19th century once observed that his state was too small to be a republic and too large to be a lunatic asylum.
The Palmetto State has simmered down a lot since then, but suspended Chief Justice Roy Moore of the state of Alabama seems bent on proving that the Heart of Dixie is still fighting against the reins of the federal government, and in a not particularly rational manner.
The former circuit judge from Gadsden, Ala., has taken the rather absurd position that the Bill of Rights in the federal constitution does not apply to Alabama but the Ten Commandments do.
For the record, I have great respect for the Ten Commandments. A bronze plaque enumerating the commandments - a wedding present from my Uncle Bud - has adorned a wall of my home ever since Miss Peggy and I were joined in matrimony. I try my best to live up to them.
But I get heartburn when I see the commandments being dragged through the political mire for the sake of a misguided judge who seems to have a martyr's complex.
Roy Moore stormed into office as a one-issue judge, that issue being the Ten Commandments as the bedrock of American government. He showed his contempt for the rule of law by sneaking a 5,280-pound monument to the Commandments into the rotunda of the state Judicial Building. He did it in the dead of night, without informing his fellow justices. And he vowed, figuratively, to stand at the courthouse door to prevent their removal.
Other Alabama politicians were intimidated by Moore's margin of victory and by the fervor of his popular support. Fortunately, the federal judiciary was not; it ordered the monument removed. When Moore defied the order, the Alabama Judicial Inquiry Commission suspended him. Fellow Republican Gorman Houston, a long-time voice of reason on the court, became acting chief justice.
Moore claims that the Alabama Constitution acknowledges the supremacy of God and that he is obligated by his oath of office to acknowledge it too. Moore and his well-meaning supporters contend that it's a myth that the U.S. Constitution mandates a wall of separation between church and state.
But the Alabama Constitution is even more explicit than the federal constitution's First Amendment in mandating that government keep its grubby hands out of religion.
It provides that "no preference shall be given by law to any religious sect, society, denomination, or mode of worship; that no one shall be compelled by law to attend any place of worship."
I have no problem in personally acknowledging the supremacy of Moses' God. I do have a problem with requiring others who are not so inclined to make such an acknowledgment as a condition to obtaining justice.
To quote John Leland, a Baptist preacher in Virginia in 1791: "Let every man speak freely without fear - maintain the principles that he believes - worship according to his own faith, either one God, three Gods, no God or twenty gods; and let government protect him in so doing."
Justice Moore would restrict government to the acknowledgement of just one god - his god - and just one mode of worship - his mode.
James Madison, one of the chief architects of the Constitution, warned that the legal principle that would allow government to elevate Christianity over all other religions could also be used to elevate one version of Christianity over all other versions.
Roy Moore and his constituents seem bent on establishing the beliefs of fundamentalist churches as the orthodoxy of their state. If they succeed, they will have narrowed the rights of those who subscribe to different beliefs.
There is a place in Alabama where Moses and the Ten Commandments are depicted in a lawful setting.
At one entrance to the old Mobile County Courthouse, erected in 1959, is a sculpture of Moses pointing passionately to the stone tablets holding the Ten Commandments. The display also depicts Justinian, the 6th-century Byzantine emperor who codified Roman law, and Solon, the Athenian law reformer who introduced the concept that all citizens should have access to justice in the courts.
The sculptor makes no judgment as to whether Moses' monotheism is superior to the polytheism of Solon's Hellenic world or the Trinitarian worship of the Roman and Byzantine world.
The three men at the courthouse stand for the principle of the rule of law and not for their individual religious faiths. Moore's monument was a gauntlet flung at the feet of those who want to keep religion and government separate. Fortunately, the federal courts, and now Moore's fellow justices, have picked it up.
Gene Owens has been around the Southern journalistic scene for 48 years. He has been senior associate editor of The Virginian-Pilot in Norfolk, Va., and editorial-page editor of the Roanoke Times in Roanoke, Va.
As senior editor for Creative Services, a management consulting firm in High Point, N. C., he ghosted more than a dozen published books for professional clients. He has also been assistant managing editor, political editor and columnist for the Mobile Register. Register readers have named him their favorite local columnist, and readers of the independent regional magazine, Bay Weekly, agreed. He was runner-up in the regional Green Eyeshades competition among writers of humor columns.
He has been on the board of directors of the National Conference of Editorial Writers and was editor of The Masthead, the NCEW's national quarterly. He is now in semi-retirement in Anderson, S. C.
In addition to Greasepit Grammar, he writes a column of commentary and humor from a Southern perspective. The column has been a fixture for many years in the Greensboro, N. C., News-Record and in the Kingsport, Tenn., Times-News.
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