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Ten Commandments Amendment Cruises to Victory in Alabama

The constitutional amendment, allowing religious monuments in government buildings, will almost surely wind up in court.

ten commandments
Visitors to the Alabama State Judicial Building in 2002 view the Ten Commandments monument installed by then-Chief Justice Roy Moore.
(AP/Dave Martin)
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Alabama voters overwhelmingly approved a ballot measure to allow the Ten Commandments to be displayed in schools and government buildings in the state. 

By greater than a three-to-one margin, voters in the state supported the controversial ballot initiative that almost certainly will invite court battles over the First Amendment. 

The amendment effort was led by by Dean Young, a Christian activist who once served as an aide to Roy Moore, the former chief justice who made national headlines in 2001 when he had a 5,200-pound granite monument of the Ten Commandments installed in the rotunda of the state courthouse.

Moore caused a firestorm of controversy 17 years ago when he installed the Biblical monument on public grounds. Several groups including the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and the Southern Poverty Law Center sued, and a federal court ordered Moore to remove the monument. Moore announced his intention to defy the court ruling; ultimately he was removed from office in 2003 and the monument was removed from courthouse grounds. (Moore was reelected to the bench in 2012 and again served as chief justice until 2017, when he resigned after having been suspended for several ethics violations. His 2017 run for a special U.S. Senate election ended unsuccessfully amid multiple allegations of sexual misconduct.)

Young saw the Ten Commandments amendment as an affirmation by the state’s residents of their commitment to faith. “Do the people of Alabama want to acknowledge God, the God of the Old and New Testament, the Christian God? Do we want to acknowledge the God that our nation was founded upon? Alabamians will vote, they will reckon on that day with God how they vote on this, that's how serious this is," Young told the Associated Press earlier this year. "Either we stand for God or we won't." 

Support of open displays of religious objects remains strong, but it has declined somewhat in recent years. In 2005, 83 percent of Americans believed it was acceptable to display Christmas symbols on government property. By 2014, around 75 percent did.

In Alabama, political contributions for the measure, which totaled a little more than $27,000, consisted almost solely of a loan given to the campaign in support of the amendment by Young himself.

As in 2001, the ACLU pushed back, as did one prominent state Republican. Bill Hightower, a state senator who unsuccessfully ran for governor earlier this year, said while he personally believes in the Ten Commandments, he is "much more interested in [them] being written on someone's heart, not on a wall." 

Hightower and others believed that any attempts to install the Ten Commandments would only lead to another lawsuit, one the state cannot win. “They are the greatest groups of laws that have changed the course of history of mankind for a long time," Hightower said during a candidate debate this spring. "There is no doubt on their impact to the world. But this law? I don't believe it will be a big issue for us. We can't defend it."

But Young and other supporters said that's exactly what they want: a legal challenge to the amendment that ends up in federal court, ultimately resulting in a Supreme Court decision on the matter. And with the confirmation of Justice Brett Kavanaugh giving the high court a reliable conservative majority, Young and other advocates may have reason to be optimistic.

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