Media coverage of his legal battle to keep his Ten Commandments monument in his state's judicial building has propelled Alabama Chief Justice Roy Moore into one of the nation's highest-profile Southern Baptists.
Moore, a Baptist layman, has hinted he might go to jail rather than obey a federal court order to remove the 5,300-pound monument installed by his order two years ago.
Moore confirmed Thursday that he will defy the injunction and promised to appeal any order to remove the monument to the U.S. Supreme Court.
"I have no intention of removing the monument," Moore said at a press conference in Montgomery, Ala., reported by the Associated Press. "This I cannot and will not do."
While conservative religious leaders have voiced strong support for Moore, including prominent Southern Baptist leaders, his denomination's official moral-concerns spokesman has avoided the fray.
Moore first became a hero to the Religious Right when, as a state court judge in Gadsden, Ala., he posted the Ten Commandments in his courtroom. After winning election as Alabama chief justice in November of 2000, he erected the Ten Commandments monument in the judicial building on the evening of July 31, 2001, and officially unveiled it the next day.
Following a weeklong trial last year, U.S. District Judge Myron Thompson ruled that Moore's monument violated the First Amendment, because it amounted to endorsement of a particular religion. Moore appealed to a federal appeals court and lost.
Last week Thompson gave Moore until Aug. 20 to remove the monument, adding that it is the responsibility of another state official to carry out the injunction if Moore refuses.
That set the stage for a confrontation between state and federal jurisdictions that some compare to the use of federal troops to enforce court-ordered desegregation in the 1950s.
Several figures associated with the Religious Right have taken up Moore's cause.
Former Southern Baptist pastor Rick Scarborough, who resigned from his church last year to give full attention to his Vision America organization, is sponsoring a "Restore the Commandments" rally this Saturday on the steps of the Alabama State Supreme Court building to show support for Moore.
Members of Vision America's advisory board include prominent Southern Baptist pastors Jerry Falwell, Ronnie Floyd and Adrian Rogers, and layman Paul Pressler, co-founder of the SBC's so-called "conservative resurgence."
Some groups supporting Moore have called for civil disobedience, or physically blocking federal marshals should they intervene to remove the monument. Congress entered the controversy when the U.S. House of Representatives attached an amendment to an appropriations bill that would ban the use of federal funds to enforce the order to remove the Ten Commandments monument.
D. James Kennedy's Coral Ridge Ministries, Focus on the Family, Concerned Women of America and the American Family Association all support Moore.
While the Southern Baptist Convention's Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission has in the past allied with those groups on social issues, an Internet search of Baptist Press found the SBC agency and its head, Richard Land, mute on the issue of Moore's current legal battle.
A media section on the ERLC Web site includes press releases with comments from Land on a variety of topics, most recently the election of a gay bishop by the Episcopal Church, but nothing about municipal postings of the Ten Commandments.
The SBC passed a resolution in 1997 supporting public displays of the Ten Commandments, "including display in government offices and courthouses," and called on the ethics agency to work for a Religious Freedom Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which would "prohibit this and other types of discrimination against persons based on their religious expression or belief."
Baptist Press carried a story about trustees of the agency then called the Christian Life Commission voting 9-8 in March 1997 for a study "without prejudice" about Judge Moore's earlier battle over refusal to remove a Ten Commandments plaque from his courtroom. A site search did not find a follow-up report. The same story quoted Land as saying he agreed with "90 percent of what Judge Moore has done; the problem is with the 10 percent," but did not elaborate.
A Baptist Press story from Aug. 27, 2002, by an ERLC writer referred to guidelines by the Rutherford Institute for displaying religious documents on public property. Those guidelines advised state and municipal governments about what types of Ten Commandments displays have been upheld by courts as constitutional, those serving a secular purpose. But it did not take a position on whether Moore's display, which he has said is intended to honor God, should be legal.
A Land spokesman did not respond to e-mails seeking clarification of the ERLC's and Land's views on posting the Ten Commandments.
Other, unofficial, Southern Baptist spokesmen, however, have gone to bat for Moore.
Falwell, a TV preacher and Moral Majority founder who led his independent Thomas Road Baptist Church to affiliate with the SBC in 1998, supported Moore in a "first-person" column carried last November in Baptist Press. Another Baptist Press guest columnist, Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary professor David Alan Black, touted Moore as "a true Christian statesman."
Wiley Drake, the Buena Park, Calif., pastor who helped engineer the SBC's Disney boycott, in 1999 formed an organization called Americans United for the Unity of Church and State. One of its causes was support for municipal displays of the Ten Commandments.
Bob Allen is managing editor of EthicsDaily.com.