A circuit court judge in rural Alabama created a constitutional stir Tuesday by wearing a robe embroidered with the text of the Ten Commandments on the bench and insisting on carrying on with a trial despite objections by an attorney appearing before him who said that the display was distracting. Covington County Presiding Circuit Court Judge Ashley McKathan explained that he wanted to honor the truth of the Commandments, that he had paid for the robe himself, and that he had selected a small size for the lettering so that it would not be "in the face" of jurors. McKathan's action immediately reminded observers of former Alabama Chief Justice Roy Moore, who was stripped of office earlier this year by an Alabama judicial ethics board after failing to comply with a federal court order to remove a Ten Commandments monument he had placed in the front hall of the state Judicial Building in Montgomery. Moore told reporters that he supported McKathan's action.
Judge wears Ten Commandments on his robe
Wednesday, December 15, 2004
By CONNIE BAGGETT
A rural Alabama judge began wearing a robe embroidered with the Ten Commandments to his Andalusia courtroom this week, echoing the statement made by the state Supreme Court chief justice ousted over a Ten Commandments display.
Covington County Presiding Circuit Court Judge Ashley McKathan said he ordered the robe and had it embroidered using his own money. He said he did it because he felt strongly that he should stand up for his personal religious convictions.
"Truth is an absolute value," McKathan said, "and you can't divorce the law from the truth. I feel we must resist the modern attempts to discount the truth."
Roy Moore lost his job as Alabama's top jurist in late 2003 for defying a federal court order calling for removal of a stone monument of the Ten Commandments that he ordered placed in the rotunda of the state Supreme Court building.
Moore's monument became a focal point for nationwide debate over religion's place in government and Moore emerged as an icon to Christian conservatives.
Attorney Riley Powell of Andalusia and Gulf Shores said Tuesday he filed a motion objecting to the robe in a case before McKathan.
"I was representing an airline pilot who was accused of driving under the influence," Powell said. "It's not that I am anti-Christian in the least. In fact, on a personal level I respect what Judge McKathan is doing very much.
"It's just the robe has created a great distraction in the courtroom with media present and cameras. And when the judge wears his personal views on his chest, does that influence the jury?" Powell asked. "Does it send a signal or change what a juror's own beliefs might be? My client is entitled to a trial without that distraction or those issues."
McKathan denied the motion objecting to the robe and another motion asking for a delay in the trial, Powell said.
The robe is black with gold letterring less than an inch tall on the chest. Powell said he has known McKathan for many years and has never known him to do anything to seek publicity.
Larry Darby, president of American Atheists, a Montgomery-based nonprofit legal advocacy group, learned of the embroidered display from a reporter on Tuesday.
"You've got to be kidding me," Darby said when told. "I think he's making a mockery of his office, the judicial system and the religion clauses of the U.S. Constitution. It's unbelievable and absurd."
Moore issued a statement of support Tuesday.
"The recognition of the God who gave us the Ten Commandments is fundamental to an understanding of the First Amendment to the United States Constitution," Moore said. "I applaud Judge McKathan. It is time for our judiciary to recognize the moral basis of our law."
Moore rose to prominence as Alabama's "Ten Commandments judge" when, as a circuit jurist, he placed a wood plaque of the biblical directives in his Etowah County courtroom. The ACLU sued, saying people who did not share his publicly displayed religious beliefs did not feel they were going to be treated fairly in his courtroom.
McKathan said he is aware there could be court battles over his robe because "there is a potential constitutional issue." He said he does not want a legal fight, but is prepared should one come.
"I see the Ten Commandments as a connection to the truth," he said. "The scriptural truth is the underlying foundation for the law. It has sustained Western civilization for centuries. Without the truth, you can throw the law away."
McKathan said he has been a circuit judge for 13 years, and is a member of Pleasant Home Baptist Church. He said Moore did the right thing in disobeying a federal judge's orders.
"I approved of the placement of the monument in the judiciary building," McKathan said. "It took a lot of courage for Judge Moore to go through all he did. I just hope I will be able to give an articulate defense. I don't want a court battle -- but you know, all that's in the Lord's hands."
Darby said the Atheist Law Center is involved in cases to have Ten Commandments displays removed in Texas and Kentucky. The lawsuits, he said, seek a U.S. Supreme Court ban on any religious display in a courtroom, "or maybe on a person -- in light of this robe."
Though court officials in Covington County said they were shocked to see the robe on Monday, none would agree to be quoted regarding the display.
Richard Cohen, the Southern Poverty Law Center attorney in the civil case to remove Moore's granite monument from the Supreme Court judicial building, said he would be looking into the incident.
"We should always be wary of public officials who wear their religion on their sleeve," Cohen said, "or in this case on their robes."
<Walter, listening to now to the 'Blind Boys Of Alabama'>