05/17/2010 06:06 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Outspoken Judge Tries To Ride Fame To Governor's Office

By Greg Garrison / The Birmingham News
Religion News Service

BIRMINGHAM, Ala. (RNS) Former Chief Justice Roy Moore hopes his stands defending public displays of faith still resonate enough with Alabama voters to get him elected to statewide office again, this time as governor.

"For the government to acknowledge God is not a violation of the Constitution," Moore said in an interview, echoing the stand he built his career on. "To deny God is to begin to take away rights. In the long run, the welfare of our state depends on the blessings of God."

Moore was first catapulted from a rural circuit court judgeship into the national limelight in 1995 when he defied the American Civil Liberties Union and refused to remove a handmade Ten Commandments plaque from his Etowah County courtroom. His ensuing popularity with the state's evangelical Christians helped propel him to election as chief justice in 2000.

Moore may have lost some support from those who thought he went too far in commissioning a 5,280-pound granite monument of the Ten Commandments and displaying it in the state judicial building. That set off another legal confrontation, one Moore lost.

His defiance of a federal court order ended his term as chief justice in 2003. The State Court of the Judiciary removed him from office for not following the order to remove the granite monument from the rotunda of the state judicial building.

He launched another statewide run in 2006, seeking to oust incumbent Republican Gov. Bob Riley, but he lost in the Republican primary.

Now Moore has high name recognition, but he has trailed other candidates in fundraising.

"We're not accepting gambling money and we're not accepting special interest money," said James R. Henderson, Moore's campaign manager. "What we have are contributions from the real folks of Alabama. We get smaller contributions. We don't have as much as the other candidates do."

Moore prefers it that way. "I've always fought the special interests," he said. "I can more closely identify with the people."

Moore remains opposed to gambling, and touts himself as a pro-business and anti-tax conservative.

"We need to go back and examine wasteful spending," Moore said. "We've got to cut back on the government, eliminate unneeded programs."

Moore, 63, grew up the son of a jackhammer operator. His family's many homes in Alabama, Texas and Pennsylvania were often without indoor plumbing. When he enrolled at West Point, he sent home portions of his living allowance.

Moore served as commander of a military police company in Vietnam from 1969 to 1974, and says his Vietnam experience shows his leadership credentials.

"The governor's in charge of the National Guard and state militia," Moore said. "It helps when you send people off to war that you've been to war. I've been there and led troops in combat."

State Sen. Larry Means, D-Attalla, who graduated from Etowah High with Moore in 1965, recalls him as diligent and humble.

"I can tell you one thing with Roy Moore, what you see is what you get," Means said. "It's not an act. He's genuine. It's not a show. He really believes that way.

Moore's removal as chief justice chipped away at his support, and while Moore would be a fiscally responsible governor, he'd likely be hard to work with, Means said.

"The negative is Roy is real, real stubborn," Means said. "To work with the legislature, you've got to give and take, compromise."

After Vietnam, Moore graduated from the University of Alabama School of Law. He worked as a deputy district attorney from 1977 to 1982; it also was during that time that Moore made a wood-burned Ten Commandments plaque and hung it in his office.

Moore ran as a Democrat for circuit judge in 1982 and lost. He then spent more than a year working on a ranch in Australia and trained as a kickboxer in Texas before going home to open a law practice, where he again hung his plaque on his office wall.

Moore lost a bid for district attorney in 1986. But then Moore became a Republican, and was appointed a circuit judge in 1992. That's when Moore moved his handmade Ten Commandments plaque to the wall of his courtroom and began drawing notice by opening court with prayer.

Joel Sogol, chairman of Alabama litigation for the ACLU in 1994, received complaints and contacted Moore to say he planned to send a court reporter to document the courtroom prayers. Moore announced prayers would continue and the plaque would remain.

"It started as really a small matter involving prayer in the courtroom," Sogol said. "We didn't even know there was a Ten Commandments plaque."

A judge ruled in 1996 that the prayers must stop and the plaque must come down. Then-Gov. Fob James threatened to call in the National Guard to prevent that. Eventually, the lawsuit was thrown out on a technicality, but the publicity helped propel Moore to easy election as chief justice in 2000.

Moore said he probably still would be a county judge if the ACLU had never challenged him. Instead, he became a major figure in state politics. The issue--and Moore's fame--escalated with installation of the granite version of the Ten Commandments in Montgomery and Moore's removal from office for refusing to follow a court order.

Moore remains best known for defending public acknowledgment of God.

"Other than this one issue, it's hard to figure out where he stands," Sogol said. "I don't think anybody has a clue where this state would be going if he gets elected. I don't think he does."

(Greg Garrison writes for The Birmingham News in Birmingham, Ala.)