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Ten Commandments Monument Stirs Debate Over Religious Freedom in US


The controversy in the southern American state of Alabama over the placement of a stone monument depicting the Ten Commandments has triggered an impassioned debate over one of the core principles of American democracy - the separation of religion and government. Some see the display of the Biblical symbol in a public courthouse as a violation of American law. The monument's defenders view the struggle to remove it as a rejection of God.

Alabama's highest judicial official, state Supreme Court Chief Justice Roy Moore, says he has an obligation to uphold God's law above the laws of man. Chief Justice Moore is a Christian, and he believes the Biblical Ten Commandments are the cornerstone of America's legal heritage.

"The acknowledgement of Almighty God is the basis for our justice system. It is the source of our law. It is the foundation of our country," he said.

That's why Chief Justice Moore refused to move a large stone monument to the Ten Commandments when a U.S. district judge ordered him to do so in August. Judge Moore placed the monument in Alabama's Supreme Court building two years ago, but a group of attorneys filed a lawsuit to remove it from public view.

Steven Glassroth says he sued because the monument is offensive. "It offended me because it is an act of intolerance," he said. "It's allowing one person to proclaim that the state of Alabama is of one faith, when in reality, we have many people of many different faiths and people who don't have faith. We all come together in a mosaic that is representative of us all."

The United States is a nation of religious diversity. To ensure no faith is elevated above another, the United States Constitution prohibits the government from interfering with or promoting religious practices.

University of Alabama law professor Bryan Fair says the law also gives all residents, no matter what faith they believe, an equal opportunity to participate in society and live freely. He says as Alabama's Chief Justice, Roy Moore is a representative of state government and cannot impose his personal religious beliefs on the state's residents.

"Privately, Chief Justice Moore and others might believe whatever they want," he said. "But in terms of the government, all American citizens have to stand relative to the government in the same position. It's what the law of the nation is."

However, those who wanted to keep the Ten Commandments on public display in the Alabama Supreme Court building say the monument's removal is an assault on God.

"This isn't a one-sided issue," said Reverend Rob Schenck, who works with the National Clergy Council, an organization which has helped organize protest rallies in Montgomery. "There are tens of thousands of people in this state and across the United States who feel very strongly that the Commandments should remain here in this building."

Christianity is America's largest religion, with about 77 percent of the population practicing the faith. Some Christians believe the government is unfairly targeting them by removing Christian references from the public square. They say the wishes of the many are being sacrificed for the benefit of the few.

Sue Waldrop supports the Ten Commandments monument. She says she is not interfering with those who disagree with her, and her views should be shown the same respect.

"So if I'm not offending them, and I'm going to let them live how they want to, then why not leave me alone, too?," she asks.

But University of Alabama law professor Bryan Fair says those who support Chief Justice Roy Moore's battle should try to imagine a different situation. What if another chief justice, who held very different religious views from the majority of Alabama residents, installed his or her own religious symbol in the state Supreme Court building?

"If they could understand that, and their feelings of rejection and marginalization, then Christians ought to be able to understand why the installation of this monument might be offensive to other American citizens in Alabama or elsewhere," he said.

Professor Fair says the law does not discriminate against Christians or any other faith. Instead, he says it protects the private beliefs of all Americans while preventing public authority figures from establishing or promoting an official religion. But, the debate will continue. Alabama Chief Justice Roy Moore has promised to take the issue to the United States Supreme Court for a final decision on the matter.