For visitors to the capital of Alabama, the granite monument of the Ten Commandments is the most popular attraction that isn't there.
In the rotunda of the state Supreme Court building, behind the U.S. and Alabama flags, the floor shows only vague scuff marks where the monument used to sit.
But even in its absence, the Ten Commandments has a presence.
Tourism, according to Willie James, a courthouse marshal, has gone up since the controversy over former Chief Justice Roy Moore's monument became national news this past summer. "Visitors always ask, 'Where are the Ten Commandments? Can we see them?'" James says.
The response is that the 2.5-ton monument is locked away in a room, the private property of Moore, and, under court order, off-limits to the public.
That room, in fact, is through a first-floor lunchroom available only to those with a key pass; then, from the lunchroom, through another door locked to all except people such as James and building manager Graham George Jr., a retired U.S. Army colonel and former Vietnam War battalion commander.
It was George, following court instructions, who presided over the physical removal of the commandments monument on Aug. 27.
"The media was pasted up against the glass," he remembers, referring to the tempered panels rising 30 feet at the front door and 50 feet to each side of it. He pushes his hand against the glass; it has some give. He says that with the crush of people outside who were peering in, he worried the glass might give way.
George had contracted with a mover, who got the monument up off the ground, then rolled it to the storage room, where the door had to be sawed an inch and a half wider to get it through. It sits there now, he says, but not in the dark.
"I keep the lights on it," he says.
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Tall, bearded and wearing a jersey with a silk-screened image of the Ten Commandments monument, Steve Kukla, 53, paces about the Supreme Court rotunda, looking at the spot where the stone used to sit.
Kukla and his wife, Bonnie, are singing evangelists who live in Tulsa, Okla. They were driving from Louisiana to Atlanta when they decided to stop and pay homage to the Ten Commandments.
"We came specifically to see where the monument was," says Steve Kukla.
"It's a solemn feeling," says his wife, stepping up next to him.
They take photos of each other in the vicinity of the flags; they look around at the empty spaces. They see a bronze copy of the Bill of Rights near the entrance foyer.
"It's like visiting a graveyard," says Steve Kukla, "a graveyard of the moral absolute this country once stood for."
Another group enters, a threesome visiting Montgomery from Savannah, Ga. Among them is Tony Foley, a young lawyer who says he wanted to see where the monument was because of his interest in the legal complexities of the issue—and because "I think they should put it back."
Foley and his friends look around, pause at the empty place near the flags, head back out the door.
Then, all is silent, a dramatic contrast to August, when satellite trucks crowded the street, and supporters of Moore prayed on the steps, and people wearing sandwich boards with the Ten Commandments printed on them took up their positions near the building's columns outside.
"There was one man who came until only recently, every morning about 7 a.m., and knelt on the courthouse steps," says State Law Librarian Timothy Lewis.
But that man is gone now, too, Lewis says.
In all of Lewis' years as law librarian for the court—17 total—he has never seen the commotion that the Ten Commandments set going.
He remembers a boy of about 12 who stood outside his library window blowing a ram's horn. A religious symbol from the Old Testament, the horn was used to herald worship. It became popular among Ten Commandment supporters on the courthouse steps.
Lewis had to call marshals to chase away the boy and his distracting horn. When Lewis later viewed security tapes, he saw the boy blow the horn, then peep into the window to see if anybody had noticed.
For $6, Lewis will provide a video to anyone of "Court of the Judiciary, Case No. 33, In the Matter of Roy S. Moore." At least 100 people, he says, have requested copies of the Alabama Court of the Judiciary proceedings of Nov. 12 and 13 that resulted in the ouster of Moore as chief justice.
The court's nine members unanimously declared that Moore had violated the state's Canons of Judicial Ethics and brought "disrepute" when he refused to remove the monument from public view as ordered by U.S. District Judge Myron Thompson.
One day in the future, Lewis predicts, the courthouse corridors will contain an educational display about the Ten Commandments controversy.
The law library keeps a register of the visitors to the courthouse, and to flip through it is to catch a glimpse of the brief sentiments, pro and con, concerning the monument.
The comments, under "purpose of visit," build through the early part of 2003 and reach a crescendo in the summer.
A woman from New Hampshire: "May God bless the judge and the state of Al."
A man from Pennsylvania: "To be appalled by the 10 Comm. display!"
A man from Oregon: "Pray for our continued freedom under God."
A woman from Arizona: "Can not believe this monument still here!"
A woman from Alabama: "God bless the USA and Judge Moore."
A woman from Alabama: "God bless the ACLU."
A man from Alabama: "Roy Moore for president."
Copyright © 2004 Religion News Service.
Copyright © 2004 Christianity Today. Click for reprint information.
Videotapes of "Court of the Judiciary, Case No. 33, In the Matter of Roy S. Moore" are available for purchase from the Supreme Court and State Law Library of Alabama. The cost is $6. To order by phone: (334) 242-4347. To order by mail, contact The Supreme Court and State Law Library of Alabama; 300 Dexter Avenue; Montgomery, AL 36104
"The Alabama case was not a turning point in church-state law," Christianity Today said in an October editorial. "But the furor over it may have shaped future battles, especially in public opinion. By erroneously claiming that the courts are opposed to displaying the Commandments, Moore and his supporters may have created the perception that such displays are always unconstitutional."
"In an era in which we are struggling to find the proper place of religion in a pluralistic society, we must be careful neither to crusade for nor to accept mere symbols," Christianity Today said in a 2000 editorial. "When something becomes a rallying point for a cause or an identifying symbol for a movement, it runs the danger of becoming an idol."
Joseph Loconte pontificated on the Ten Commandments last month in an opinion piece for our web site. He earlier commented on the Commandments controversy for National Public Radio's All Things Considered. His commentary was picked up by the Chicago Tribune and other publications.
Christian History Corner earlier examined the history of the Decalogue's place in British and American history.