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Jewish Groups Celebrate Outcome of Alabama Case, but Worry for Future

August 28, 2003
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Jewish leaders praised the removal of a monument of the Ten Commandments in the Alabama Judicial Building but are concerned by some of the developments the case has spawned.

“The result was what we wanted,” said Deborah Lauter, the Anti-Defamation League’s Southeast region director. “We celebrate the rule of law prevailing.”

Despite the legal victory, some in the Jewish community are concerned by the amount of support Alabama Chief Justice Roy Moore has received in the state and in Congress. They worry that he will be portrayed as a martyr in future clashes over church-state issues.

They also worry that public response to the Ten Commandments case might cause some federal judges to let other unpopular orders go unenforced.

“What is symbolic about any discussion is the depths of feelings on both sides,” said Marc Stern, the American Jewish Congress’ general counsel. “These two sides really don’t understand each other.”

Jewish groups were active while the case was in the courts, supporting efforts to force Moore to remove the monument, which he installed one night two years ago.

But since the federal court ruled in their favor last year, Jewish groups have taken a less active role — waiting and watching as Moore defied the court order.

State officials took action Wednesday to move the monument from the building’s rotunda to a private area, while Christian religious activists who support Moore prayed outside.

“We’ve been happy to just let Judge Moore self destruct,” Stern said.

Despite often taking a religiously conservative stance on church-state issues, the fervently Orthodox group Agudath Israel of America has not taken a position on the Ten Commandments case.

“God and the concept of morality does not violate the church-state separation,” said Rabbi Avi Shafran, Agudah’s director of public affairs. “But something that is blatantly in support of a particular religion would be very clearly unconstitutional.”

Other Jewish organizations filed briefs seeking the monument’s removal last year, claiming it violated the Constitution’s ban on government promotion of religion. The briefs argued that the monument not only endorsed religion, but also backed a particular religious perspective.

“The display of the Ten Commandments sends a message of exclusion to those who do not share the Judeo-Christian religious tradition and a message of favoritism to those who do,” said a brief filed by ADL, the American Jewish Committee and the Commission on Social Action of Reform Judaism, among other interfaith groups.

The brief went on to argue that the monument was also offensive to many within the Judeo-Christian tradition, as there is no universally accepted version of the Ten Commandments and Moore’s court therefore is “endorsing particular sectarian beliefs.”

The debate has highlighted the fact that not everyone shares Jewish groups’ definition of the separation of religion and state.

Lauter said she repeatedly has had to explain the difference between a tablet of the Ten Commandments in a courthouse and the words “In God We Trust” on American currency.

“‘In God We Trust’ is not saying, ‘This is a Christian nation,’ ” she said. “The statue, with Judge Moore’s rhetoric, is saying, ‘This is a Christian nation.’ “

Stern said he also has been concerned by support Moore received in Congress. A measure earlier this year in the U.S. House of Representatives Appropriations Committee would have prevented the government from using federal funds to enforce Ten Commandments rulings like the one in Alabama.

The measure passed the House, but it was not included in the Senate version of the spending bill.

“These are no longer politically unthinkable things,” Stern said. “The absence of opposition is troublesome.”

However, Lauter and others say they have been heartened by the acts of others in Alabama — including the eight other justices on the state’s Supreme Court, who voted last week to remove the monument.

One of those receiving accolades is Alabama Attorney General Bill Pryor, who has been working to enforce the federal court ruling. Pryor is believed to oppose church-state separation, but he is abiding by the federal court ruling out of respect for the law.

On other issues, however, Pryor — a nominee for the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit — has run afoul of Jewish groups.

Their concerns included his promotion of a Christian notion of American law, his opposition to abortion rights, opposition to equal rights for gays and lesbians, and promotion of states’ rights over federal law.

Lauter said she did not believe that Pryor’s handling of the Ten Commandments case would change the way Jewish groups see him, since he supports the idea of displaying the Ten Commandments on government property.

“Pryor has said all along, through his statements, that he will uphold the law,” she said. But, she added, “his ideology has not changed a wit.”

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