MOBILE, Ala. (RNS) You might think a candidate's ouster from the post he is seeking to regain would play a central role in a statewide election.
Yet Republican Roy Moore's forced exit, almost a decade ago, as Alabama's chief justice over a Ten Commandments monument seems only a murmur on the campaign trail.
Voters don't often ask about it, and the other two candidates in the March GOP primary hardly ever talk about it.
Moore plunged Alabama into a showdown in 2003 when he erected a 5,280-pound granite monument to the Ten Commandments in the Alabama judicial building in Montgomery. A federal judge declared the monument to be a violation of the separation of church and state and ordered Moore to remove it.
When Moore refused, a special panel of retired state judges voted unanimously to remove him from office for violating a higher-court order.
But now, the episode hardly comes up. University of Alabama political scientist William Stewart said Moore's two opponents, incumbent Chuck Malone and Presiding Mobile County Circuit Judge Charles Graddick, must play a careful balancing game.
“They don't want to alienate people who like Moore and his stand,” Stewart said. “I think they hope people would factor that into their deliberations.”
Moore said many people misunderstood his position at the time. It was not about the monument, he said, but his right to acknowledge God. He said he refused to comply with the federal order because doing so would have required him to violate his oath to the Constitution.
The federal judge could have ordered the building manager to remove the monument, Moore said, and he would not have stood in his way.
“They would still have been wrong constitutionally, but they would have had their order carried out in the proper manner,” he said.
Moore's two opponents have said they would comply with orders from a higher court, but they shied away from overt criticism of Moore.
“The public's going to determine that,” Graddick said when asked. Said Malone: “I think that's up to each voter.”
Moore went on to run for governor in 2006 and 2010 and lost. His name was also floated as a presidential candidate in 2004 and 2008 for the Constitution Party but he never ran.
Even now, Moore said he has no second thoughts about the stand he took.
“You always regret getting removed from office. But I don't regret the fact that I stood up for the Constitution of the United States and the First Amendment,” he said.
If returned to his old job, Moore said he has no plans to reinstall the monument.
“I have said repeatedly that I would not,” he said, “not because it's illegal to do so, but because it would confuse the issue. And most people don't understand what the issue was.”
Stewart, the political scientist, said it is fair to wonder if Moore would defy the court on a different issue. But Moore said that is unlikely.
“I can't envision a set of circumstances or an order that would cause me to be in conflict with a higher court,” he said. “This is the only conflict I've had with a higher court, and I can't envision another conflict.”
Ultimately, Moore's position may boil down to simple politics, Stewart said, noting the state's high number of evangelical voters who believe in the literal truth of the Bible.
“The candidates just don't want to appear on the liberal side of anything,” he said, “in politics or religion.”
(Brendan Kirby writes for The Press-Register in Mobile, Ala.)