By KYLE WINGFIELD
The Associated Press
MONTGOMERY, Ala. – A Ten Commandments monument that became a lightning rod in a legal storm over issues of church and state was rolled from the rotunda of the Alabama Judicial Building on Wednesday as protesters kneeled, prayed and chanted “Put it back!”
Suspended Chief Justice Roy Moore, who installed the marker two years ago, promised a full appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court. But to the dismay of scores of supporters on a weeklong vigil outside the front doors, the 5,280-pound monument was lifted from its site and rolled by a work crew to a back room.
Building manager Graham George said the monument was in “a private storage area,” declining to elaborate or say if the public would be able to see it. He said officials had considered removing the monument's two engraved tablets from the block-like bottom, but decided against it because of concerns the marker could be damaged.
“It is a sad day in our country when the moral foundation of our laws and the acknowledgment of God has to be hidden from public view to appease a federal judge,” Moore said in a statement.
His attorney, Phillip Jauregui, said the case is “far from over,” with an appeal to be filed with the U.S. Supreme Court.
U.S. District Judge Myron Thompson of Montgomery, who ruled last year that the monument violates the constitution's ban on government endorsement of a religious doctrine, has scheduled a Friday conference call to determine if the state is now in compliance with his order.
His ruling said the marker could be in a private place in the building but not the highly visible site in the rotunda directly across from the entrance.
“This is a tremendous victory for the rule of law and respect for religious diversity,” said the Rev. Barry Lynn, executive director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State. “Perhaps Roy Moore will soon leave the bench and move into the pulpit, which he seems better suited for.”
As the monument left public view, a federal judge in Mobile dismissed a lawsuit that had been filed this week to stop it. U.S. District Judge William H. Steele said the law does not allow a “horizontal appeal,” asking a federal judge in Mobile to overturn an order from a federal judge in another district.
Outside the judicial building in Montgomery, where tensions rose Wednesday morning, some demonstrators lay down, kneeled in prayer, recited the Pledge of Allegiance and the Lord's Prayer. Four men linked arms and chanted, “Put it back!”
Hundreds have joined the weeklong protest and vigil, which have been peaceful despite Wednesday's anger. Organizers said the protest would not end with the monument's removal.
“They can move it out of view but they can't move it out of our hearts,” said Rick Moser, 47, of Woodstock, Ga.
Protest organizer Patrick Mahoney, director of the Christian Defense Coalition, said it was critical for the supporters to remain after the monument's removal to “stand with Christ and against judicial tyranny.”
Moore, who drew supporters from around the nation to his cause, was suspended by a judicial ethics panel when he refused to obey Thompson's order to move the monument. Under the threat of $5,000 daily fines on the state, the eight associate Supreme Court justices overruled Moore and ordered the monument removed.
Attorney General Bill Pryor defended their action and is overseeing the prosecution of Moore on the ethics charge, which will be heard before the seven-member Court of the Judiciary. It has the power to discipline and remove judges. Moore has not yet filed his response to the charges, but has said he did nothing more than obey his oath.
Moore contends the federal judge has no authority to tell Alabama's chief justice to remove the monument.
In his statement Wednesday, Moore said he was “profoundly disappointed” with Gov. Bob Riley, the attorney general and the associate justices of the Alabama Supreme Court. He said they “allowed the basis of our justice system to be undermined by a federal judge who says that we cannot acknowledge God.”
In his ruling last year, Thompson wrote: “The Ten Commandments monument, viewed alone or in the context of its history, placement, and location, has the primary effect of endorsing religion.”
Pryor and the associate justices have said they took an oath to obey the law, even if they disagree with it.
Riley issued a statement saying he hopes the monument's removal is “brief and temporary,” with the U.S. Supreme Court ordering it moved back to the rotunda. He said he would file legal briefs supporting Moore's stand.
While lawyers suing to remove the monument were gratified it finally was gone, some were cautious.
Robert Varley, an American Civil Liberties Union lawyer who sued to remove the monument, said the plaintiffs will “have to wait and take a look at where the monument has been moved to before we can say with certainty it's in compliance.”
Having failed to persuade state officials to intervene, the protesters turned their attention to Washington. The Rev. Rob Schenck, president of the Washington-based National Clergy Council, said his organization is pushing federal legislation to protect public displays of the Ten Commandments. Mahoney called on President Bush to speak out on the case.
“We depend on the moral strength and the constitutional support of the president, and it will be necessary for him to go on record on this issue,” Mahoney said.
Asked about the president's view of the controversy, White House spokeswoman Claire Buchan said: “It is important that we respect our laws and our courts. In some instances the courts have ruled that the posting of Ten Commandments is OK. In other circumstances they have ruled that it's not OK. In either case, there is always opportunity for appeal of courts' decisions.”