The Chief Justice of the state of Alabama in the southern United States is fighting an order to remove a stone carving of the biblical Ten Commandments from the state's main judicial building. The incident spotlights controversy over how to interpret U.S. law and its Constitution. VOA-TV's James Bertel spoke with Catholic University Professor Robert Destro, Founder and Co-Director of the Interdisciplinary Program in Law and Religion about the debate.
BERTEL:The First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution reads, and I quote, "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion or prohibiting the free exercise thereof." Is there a separation of church and state?
PROFESSOR DESTRO: Well, it depends on who you talk to. The short answer is that some people look at this as a State court system taking sides in a religious controversy which, at its most fundamental level, is about should you have the Ten Commandments at all? At another level is which version of the Ten Commandments do you have. So that's the anti-Ten Commandments view.
The pro view is that Congress shouldn't be telling the States what to do and that the First Amendment says they make no law, including a law which says you're not allowed to have the Ten Commandments.
BERTEL: So we're looking at a whole variety of different issues here?
PROFESSOR DESTRO: Yes.
BERTEL: One issue is that Judge Moore says he "has the constitutional right to acknowledge God." Now, on a personal level, of course he does, but this is a very public way of expressing that. Does he have the right to do that?
PROFESSOR DESTRO: Well, arguably, he does. If Congress were to pass a law that said no State judge is allowed to have the Ten Commandments on his wall, there would be a First Amendment problem with that. There is also a Federalism problem in that they're trying to tell the States what to do. So this is not as easy a question as people make it out to be.
BERTEL: Okay, let's switch over to the legal side. Judge Moore insists the Alabama Constitution gives him the right to violate Federal court orders to remove the monument. Do States have the power over the Federal system?
PROFESSOR DESTRO: No, they don't. I think Judge Moore is wrong in that regard. He's also, I think, a little bit on shaky grounds in terms of Alabama law, because the Alabama court never really officially agreed to put him in.
BERTEL: Now, he ran for his judgeship as the "Ten Commandments Judge," so certainly he has the support of the voters. Will the voters have a voice in how this plays out?
PROFESSOR DESTRO: Oh, I think they will indeed have a voice in this. He may have aspirations for higher office. He could get it as a result of this. This is taken seriously not just in Alabama but everyplace else. And it's of a piece - I think the viewers need to be aware. There is another case coming up to the Supreme Court this term on whether or not we can have the words "under God" in the Pledge of Allegiance. So that case is very closely connected to this one.
BERTEL: Attorney General John Ashcroft, who would seem to be the one who would enforce Federal law, has been noticeably quiet during all of this. Is he leaving it to the court system, or should he get involved?
PROFESSOR DESTRO: There is nothing really for him to do. Unless the U.S. Marshals Service is brought in to drag the monument out, I don't think that the Governor of Alabama will let it go to that point. But I think that Federal politicians had best just stay quiet and leave this to the courts for the time being.
BERTEL: How is this going to end?
PROFESSOR DESTRO: Well, I think it's going to end, quite frankly, by having the 10 Commandments taken out of the Alabama courthouse. The problem is that it's going to create a major political firestorm, and it will raise questions about the First Amendment means that Congress isn't supposed to make rules saying that religion is great; they're also not supposed to make rules saying that it's a bad thing. So this issue of religion in a public square is going to be a big issue, and I think it will affect the 2004 presidential elections too.
BERTEL: So this issue is going to be with us for a while. Robert Destro from Catholic University, thank you for being with us. Good to have you here.
PROFESSOR DESTRO: Thanks for having me.