GWEN IFILL: A religious, political, and judicial firestorm came to a head this morning in Alabama.
GWEN IFILL: It took 90 minutes for this moving team to roll the Ten Commandments monument out of public view at the Montgomery, Alabama, judiciary building.
MAN: I just want to pray right now.
GWEN IFILL: The reaction outside was instantaneous.
MAN: Put it back! Put it back!
GWEN IFILL: Christian protesters, who have gathered at the building for a week, blasted the officials who ordered the removal and the company that executed it.
SPOKESMAN: I think it's the wrong move, and the sound of that will go all over the United States.
GWEN IFILL: Monument supporters
WOMAN: I think it's very sad. It's a tragedy really. They should keep it. There's no reason that it should have to leave.
SPEAKER: This is the body of Christ.
GWEN IFILL: Monument supporters say the removal will not end the controversy begun two summers ago. That's when Alabama's chief justice, Roy Moore, installed the 5,300-pound statue in the rotunda. He's defended it ever since.
ROY MOORE: I am recognizing the basis of our morality, which is in God, and indeed the basis of our country, indeed we're a nation founded upon God.
GWEN IFILL: But last year, a federal judge ordered the display removed saying it violates the clause of the First Amendment that states "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion." The deadline came and went was last week, as Moore refused to comply defying both his colleagues on the court, and Alabama Attorney General Bill Pryor.
BILL PRYOR: No person including the chief justice of Alabama is above the law.
GWEN IFILL: Pryor has his own controversy: He's been nominated to a federal appeals court. But Senate Democrats oppose his confirmation, in part because of his anti-abortion views. Now conservatives are angry at him as well. Moore was suspended from his job Friday, but remains defiant.
ROY MOORE: It's not about a monument. It's not about religion. It's about the acknowledgment of Almighty God.
GROUP: Amen! ( Cheers and applause )
ROY MOORE: We should be offended when elected representatives of this state, the governor, the attorney general, and justices of this court fail to acknowledge God as the basis of our justice system.
( Cheers and applause )
GWEN IFILL: Moore's supporters plan to challenge today's action before the U.S. Supreme Court, the same court that refused to hear an appeal last week.
GWEN IFILL: We pick up the debate now with two of the players. Robert Schenck is president of the national clergy council, and an ordained minister with the Evangelical Church Alliance. He has been fighting the monument's removal. Barry Lynn is the executive director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State, and an ordained minister with the United Church of Christ. His organization sued to have the display removed. Gentlemen, welcome. Rev. Schenck, what is significant about today's action in your opinion?
REV. ROBERT SCHENCK: Well, what's so significant is first of all what's at question here, and that is a monument and let's keep in mind what this is. It's a privately funded piece of art that acknowledges the supremacy of God over our nation and the very basis of our system of law and justice, right and wrong, our whole concept of morality in this country, and this is a perfectly legal expression. It's no different than our national motto, "in God we trust," no different than our pledge of allegiance, to one nation under God; no different than the supreme court's prayer every time it sits to hear a case when it says "God save the United States and this honorable court." This is just another form of that acknowledgment of God.
So what's so sad here is that we have a court that has begun now the process of eradicating all of those references to God, which poses enormous danger, because it's principles like this that hold not only individuals but governments morally accountable.
GWEN IFILL: Let's take this one piece at a time. Rev. Lynn, what do you see as being significant about what happened today? What do you see about Rev. Schenck's argument that doesn't hold water?
REV. BARRY LYNN: Well, frankly this was a terrific day for two important principles: Number one, religious freedom. That is, the freedom to believe or not to believe even if you're in a religious minority. Judge Moore now suspended Judge Moore in fact had tried to impose his religion on everyone by taking a two-and-a-half ton granite monument and displaying it in a place which one judge said is unmistakable unless you are blindfolded. You literally cannot go into that courthouse and not see it.
The other principle that's important is the rule of law. That is, this judge has, like unfortunately some politicians before him, Bull Conner, George Wallace as governor of the same state, he had defied federal court orders to remove this monument. Now today it is gone. The light at the end of the tunnel after all was shining in fact on a sign that said you shall remove this monument.
Now, what Rev. Schenck says about the foundations of this country almost are completely wrong. That is to say the Constitution of the United States is not based on the Ten Commandments. At least four -- in many versions five of the Ten Commandments are explicitly religious. They have got nothing to do with the secular law. They have issues to do with how many Gods there are, should we make graven images, what day should be the Sabbath. These are very contentious religious issues but they are not the foundation stones of the American legal system.
And, finally, his argument about, well, there are some other examples of art in other places. There is nothing, for example, in the United States Supreme Court that remotely looks like this two-and-a-half ton granite monument. There's a small decorative painting that features Moses, the law giver, along with a couple of Roman emperors, Hamarabi and others.
This is not a historical documentation. This was an effort by one judge to be above the law and to take this monument in public space and impose it on everyone in the courthouse, whether they liked it or not. Our clients in this case were people with different religious backgrounds from atheism to Catholicism to the Baptist faith. They disagreed with the premise that they should be made to feel like second-class citizens practicing in a courtroom where one man had tyrannical control over what was going to be displayed.
In fact he went so far, Gwen, as to refuse civil rights leaders the right to put up another monument in the same rotunda that simply featured the "I Have a Dream" speech by Martin Luther King.
GWEN IFILL: Well, let's try to stay on this topic of the proper role of government and religion. And help me understand, Rev. Schenck, why this is about more than a statue or a display in the lobby of a courthouse in Alabama. Why is this a bigger issue?
REV. ROBERT SCHENCK: Well, first because the declaration of independence says that our rights, which are secured by the Constitution, come from our Creator, with a capital C -- a personal Creator. And all the Ten Commandments do is simply explain who that Creator is and what the nature of that Creator is. And it's critically important that we remember that in doing so, in referencing the Creator, what our founders did was they reminded us that we are accountable to a higher moral authority than ourselves.
In other words, we're not the ultimate arbiters of right and wrong. If the majority in this country decide that murder is okay, it doesn't make murder okay. That's an immutable law that constrains both individuals and governments. And that's why this is so much larger than just this piece of artwork.
GWEN IFILL: Explain to me why does the existence of this statue, this display, this 5,300-pound monument, why does its presence there or its absence there have anything to do with whether people believe murder is wrong, whether people believe religion is right? What is the connection?
REV. ROBERT SCHENCK: Well, because if you follow the legal arguments and the philosophical arguments that have been used to remove this monument, then you must also go after our national motto, you must also go after every expression of our acknowledgment of God in our culture.
And once we do that, we become a radically secularist humanistic society which can make its own rules for right and wrong. And if Barry Lynn thinks something is right and he can get enough people on his side, then that will be the law. But if somebody else does, then that will be the law. That is a very scary specter for our society.
GWEN IFILL: Let's allow Rev. Lynn to respond.
REV. BARRY LYNN: Frankly, what this judge has done is exactly what Rob is talking about. He has made a law unto himself. He has said look if federal courts order me to take this out and I don't agree with those federal courts-- by the way two courts have now agreed with our clients in this position as have the eight members of -- the other eight members of the Alabama Supreme Court-- that this monument indeed needed to be removed.
This is not a statement about removing all reference to religion from the American cultural life. In fact we have a vital religion and religious life in this country in no small measure because government doesn't play favorites. It doesn't pick and choose what is the best religion, the right religion. It allows literally thousands of religions to flourish along with tens of millions of non-believers who choose no spiritual path but who are still part and parcel of the American experience. The acknowledgment....
GWEN IFILL: Rev. Lynn, let me jump in and ask you then. Why is it that if this constitutional reference which is appropriate to this discussion is about the establishment of religion and this display simply sits there, it's not establishing religion, it's not creating a law, what is wrong? What is it about the presence of this statute, this display that takes anything away from anybody?
REV. BARRY LYNN: Well, it's an overwhelming addition to that building. It is something that makes it crystal clear that there is one and only one religion that is practiced by the person who put this in, that is, the chief justice of the United States -- excuse me of the Alabama Supreme Court.
It basically makes everyone else who does not share that religion feel like a second class citizen in the one place where religion must be irrelevant and that is in the halls of justice. It does not prevent the judge from acknowledging his faith.
And, in fact, if this monument were not in a public building but were on his front lawn and some bureaucrat tried to take it away, I'd be down there with Mr. Schenck supporting his right to keep it up. No one is questioning the faith, the commitment of Judge Moore. What we are questioning is his right to use the power of the state to impose his religion on others.
He has tried it, as I said, courts now, two federal courts as well as of all of his colleagues on the Alabama Supreme Court said take it out. It was taken out today. It should not be viewed as a disgrace; it should not be viewed as anti-religious. It should simply be viewed as upholding the rule of law that the Constitution of the United States does matter and what judges say it means matter even to elected politicians in Alabama.
GWEN IFILL: Rev. Schenck, at a time when there were so many people who agree with you politically and your beliefs, religiously, starting from the White House all the way down to the governorship and the state house in Alabama, with those people in power, why do you find that you are fighting this battle now? Do you think that there is some larger cultural war that's at stake?
REV. ROBERT SCHENCK: Oh, absolutely. I think that there is a cultural elite that is largely reflected in the federal judiciary in this country that has a bias against religious expression in the public places. But I'll take a minute just to correct Mr. Lynn because the eight associate justices of the court, in fact, do not disagree with Chief Justice Moore. And they said so yesterday in their response to our federal case on behalf of our clients or our plaintiffs on our side when they said that we believe that the Ten Commandments and the acknowledgment of God is perfectly constitutional and should be allowed notwithstanding that-- and I'm paraphrasing just slightly-- they still feel constrained to obey the federal order.
But it was certainly contradictory to the federal order. They were saying we agree that this is constitutional and that the acknowledgment of God is allowed on behalf of public officials so, in fact, they agree with Chief Justice Moore. What they're saying is but we feel bound by a federal court ruling that, in fact, violates our beliefs on this point.
REV. BARRY LYNN: Gwen, what they feel constrained to do is to obey the system of law that we have in the country. We don't have religious courts in this country. We have secular ones. That's why, of course, the Constitution doesn't mention God even though the Declaration of Independence mentions God four times.
When we created the Constitution we created a secular system of government to protect the rights even of minorities including religious minorities in this country. There is no war against Christianity or against religion in this country. There is no cultural elite that's stopping, for example, any one of the three hundred and fifty churches in the proximity of that courthouse in Alabama from displaying the Ten Commandments.
Indeed, I have been urging Rev. Schenck and his colleagues instead of continuing to protest and argue about this, help remove that monument in a reverential fashion and place it in a place where it belongs like a church lawn or a church building nearby.
There's no war against religious broadcasters. They're all over the air waves. There is absolutely nothing that constrains this judge from practicing his faith independently, honestly and in a spirited fashion. He just can't do it in the middle of a courthouse which he seems to consider or seemed to consider before he was suspended his private property.
GWEN IFILL: Rev. Schenck, there has been some discussion about appealing this again or even further to the U.S. Supreme Court which refused to take this case last week. What reason do you have to believe that they would take it now?
REV. ROBERT SCHENCK: Actually that's not true. What they refused was an appeal on a stay of the order to remove. But they have not yet even entertained the petition for certiorari or for review. So we don't know whether they will accept that or not. It hasn't even been filed as far as I know yet.
GWEN IFILL: Barry Lynn, what's your take on what the Supreme Court --
REV. BARRY LYNN: I don't want to get into making bets because I don't think Rev. Schenck and I do that. But the point is the United States Supreme Court will not hear this case. And the reason is that this judge, Judge Moore, has basically said federal courts have no jurisdiction over me and I'm not going to listen to them unless they say what I want them to say.
He has come up with such a contempt for the idea of the federal judiciary that I think it would be preposterous with those unclean hands of his for him to expect the United States Supreme Court to hear his case on the merits. That's not the way you approach the Supreme Court.
When Judge Moore, when all is said and done, he's going to be on the wrong side of history; he's not going to be on the side of justice, he's not going to be on the side of the integrity of the Constitution. He seems to repudiate it. Frankly, it's even worse because this judge at the trial, when asked about other religions, Hinduism, he said he wasn't even sure that was a religion. He has such a limited view and willingness to accept the diversity that is this country, he's forgotten the first national monument... motto which was not "in God we trust." It was "e pluribus, unum" -- out of many one. In other words, there is a tremendous diversity of faith in this country --
REV. ROBERT SCHENCK: Mr. Lynn, would you give me just a little time.
REV. BARRY LYNN: And Rev. Schenck may not like it and the judge may not like it but sit a part and parcel of the America many of us revere.
GWEN IFILL: We're going to go to Rev. Schenck. Go ahead.
REV. ROBERT SCHENCK: Mr. Lynn now I know you are a Democrat because you do an excellent job of filibustering. One point is the reason that the Ten Commandments were selected for this monument is because, in fact, they do not divide us. They unite us. Jews, Christians, Muslims all revere them equally. Virtually all of the other Earth's major religions endorse them as beneficial for society.
There are even some well-known atheists who are on record saying there's nothing wrong with the Ten Commandments. And sometimes we portray other religious minorities as very narrow and very biased. It's not true. They are generous. They are ... they absorb the best of other religions. And certainly that's true of the Ten Commandments. So these are not divisive. And I have yet to find one person who says they're offended by them except the three lawyers that brought this case.
REV. BARRY LYNN: Well, you know, I mean that just trivializes this so much because you know that although you might have the majority vote, that is in the state of Alabama at least, I think 70 percent of the people wanted those monuments to stay, but we don't just take plebiscites. We don't have electoral votes on which part the Bill of Rights are going to be applied to the states.
And your position ultimately boils down in case after case to the Bill of Rights doesn't apply to the state of Alabama. And that is an absolutely repudiated idea. It's been repudiated now for the last 50 to 75 years.
REV. ROBERT SCHENCK: You misunderstand the argument.
REV. BARRY LYNN: And you're simply not going to prevail in this argument.
REV. ROBERT SCHENCK: Mr. Lynn, you misunderstand the argument.
GWEN IFILL: Let me step in and ask Rev. Schenck: How long do you plan to remain, you and your supporters plan to remain on the steps of the courthouse in this protest? Can you stay there indefinitely?
REV. ROBERT SCHENCK: Well, there are waves of people coming in, new arrivals from Alaska, from all points in the United States just today, more and more Alabamians, more and more residents of Montgomery coming out, James Dobson, one of the most respected and admired religious leaders in this country is coming tomorrow for a noon rally on the courthouse steps.
There are other luminaries that are promising to come in. We expect them any day. So we're taking it each day by day. I thought I'd be here for a day. I've been here over a week. Well I think I may stay a little longer.
GWEN IFILL: Briefly, Rev. Lynn, if you can tell us whether you think this is the end or the beginning of this debate.
REV. BARRY LYNN: I really think effectively this is the end of the debate. Mainstream conservatives, all the way up to the president of the United States, have certainly not gotten involved in this fight in any direct way, nor will they because in their heart of hearts they know the same thing I suspect Rev. Schenck knows, that the rule of law does matter -- that even if you have a deep religious motivation, it doesn't allow you to trump the rights of other people; it never has. And our Constitution was never designed to do just that.
I know Rev. Schenck keeps calling for people to come to Alabama. The biggest rally they had had approximately the same number of people that come to the average Alabama high school football game. This has simply not turned into what he wanted, the showdown in the cultural war for the soul of America as Pat Buchanan once put it.
This is all about the rule of law and respect for diversity. That's what won today. That's why this was an important day and I think will continue to be looked upon as an important one.
GWEN IFILL: And you will have to have the last word, Rev. Lynn. Thank you both very much for joining us.