Attorney general asks Alabama high court to reconsider Ten Commandments case

Thursday, February 12, 1998

Alabama’s attorney general has asked the state’s highest court to reconsider a decision not to hear a case regarding a circuit court judge who displays the Ten Commandments and allows prayer in his courtroom.

Attorney General Bill Pryor filed a motion for rehearing with the Alabama Supreme Court recently, arguing that its decision not to hear the suit “rests on an incorrect factual premise.”

Pryor’s motion for rehearing stems from the ruling the Supreme Court issued in January. The court dismissed the state’s case, saying that Gov. Fob James and Pryor lacked standing to plead on Moore’s behalf that he be allowed to keep religion in his courtroom. In dismissing the case, the high court also nullified a lower court decision that had ordered Moore to cease his practices.

Pryor’s motion states that, upon rehearing, the court should find that both the display of the Ten Commandments in Judge Moore’s courtroom and the practice of local clergy opening his court session with prayer do not violate the separation of church and state.

The high court’s January decision, however, noted that it was not proper for the court to issue an opinion regarding the constitutionality of Judge Moore’s actions.

“We will not allow the judiciary of this state to become a political foil or a sounding board for topics of temporary interest,” Justice Ralph Cook wrote.

Joel Sogol, an attorney affiliated with the ACLU of Alabama, said the attorney general’s motion for rehearing “simply reflects the dissatisfaction that all the parties involved in the suit have with the court’s decision.”

“I think there is a basis for the attorney general to file the motion,” Sogol told the First Amendment Center. “Justice Maddox in his dissent said that he would find a justiciable controversy and that the constitutional issues of the case would be reached. Obviously, however, I disagree with Pryor’s proposed outcome. Moore’s actions endorse a narrow band of Christianity in his courtroom that amounts to an establishment of that band of Christianity.”

Sogol, nonetheless, said he would be surprised if the court rehears its decision.

“The court rarely grants motions for rehearing,” he said. “Only in fairly exceptional circumstances has the court done so. It also seems to me that Pryor is simply advancing arguments that the other justices have already heard and rejected from Maddox.”

Moore’s actions were originally challenged in 1995 by state chapters of the American Civil Liberties Union and the Freethought Association. The civil rights groups filed a lawsuit in a state court claiming that Moore’s actions subverted the separation of church and state.

Before any circuit court reached a decision, James and Pryor, representing the state, filed a countersuit asking circuit court Judge Charles Price to declare Moore’s actions constitutional. Price, however, agreed with the civil-rights groups and concluded Moore’s practices violated the separation of church and state. James and Pryor appealed Price’s decision to the state’s high court.