On Thursday, when a federal judge jailed a Kentucky clerk for refusing to issue same-sex marriage licenses, Richard Cohen couldn’t help but think of his own case more than a decade ago that also attracted widespread national attention.
Cohen, president of the Southern Poverty Law Center, represented plaintiffs who filed suit to get a 2 1/2-ton Ten Commandments monument removed from Alabama’s judicial building. When a federal judge ordered the edifice removed, Chief Justice Roy Moore refused to follow the order.
“I will not violate my oath, I cannot forsake my conscience, I will not neglect my duty, and I will never deny the God upon whom our laws and country depend, ” the “Ten Commandments judge” said to enthusiastic applause during one rally. “To do my duty, I must acknowledge God.”
In November 2003, Moore was removed from the bench by Alabama’s Court of the Judiciary, which ruled he had every right to acknowledge God but no right to put himself above the law.
When a federal judge had ordered the monument removed, Cohen said he felt certain Moore would resign from office.
“I knew he would never take it down,” Cohen said. “But I also never imagined he’d defy a court order and bring shame to the judiciary.”
Public officials, such as Moore and Rowan County Clerk Kim Davis, cannot subvert the rule of law or bend their official duties to carry out their own religious beliefs, Cohen said.
On Thursday, U.S. District Judge David Bunning said he had to hold Davis in contempt after she said she would not to follow federal court rulings on gay marriage.
“God’s moral law conflicts with my job duties, ” Davis told the judge before she was taken away, according to an Associated Press account of the hearing. “You can’t be separated from something that’s in your heart and in your soul.”
Richard Alexander, clerk of Gwinnett County’s clerk of courts, said he anticipated Davis would receive a fine or jail time for her defiance.
“You have taken an oath of office,” Alexander said. “It was an unfortunate situation for her. But if you’re in the public trust, you just have to do your job. We are a nation of rules and law. You can’t pick and choose the ones you want to follow and don’t want to follow.”
If something like issuing a gay marriage certificate so bothers your conscience that you can’t follow the law, then you should resign your position, Alexander said.
Davis, an apostolic Christian, stopped issuing marriage licenses after the U.S. Supreme Court’s 5-4 ruling upholding same-sex marriage in June. She can only be removed from office if the state legislature votes to impeach her.
In the Ten Commandments case involving Moore, a special court removed him after an extraordinary disciplinary hearing. “In defying (the federal court) order, the chief justice placed himself above the law,” the court found.
Cohen said the cases involving Moore and Davis offer good civics lessons.
“Public officials cannot be allowed to impose their religious beliefs on society,” Cohen said. “That’s what was happening in these cases.”
Nine years after being ousted as chief justice, Moore sought reelection and reclaimed his seat. Earlier this year, before the high court’s decision upholding the right of gay marriage, Moore told Alabama’s probate judges not to issue same-sex marriage licenses — once again defying a federal judge’s decision.