CBSN

Exodus For Ten Commandments

ANIMATED IMAGE: A moving crew measures the dimensions and features of the Ten Commandments monument in the Alabama Judicial Building in Montgomery, Ala., Wednesday, Aug. 27, 2003. Animated Part (story level): Supporter is crying on the steps of the court building.
AP / CBS
Federal law trumped what protesters say is the word of God Wednesday when workers moved a Ten Commandments monument out of the rotunda of the Alabama state judicial building.

The 5,300-pound statue became a rallying cry for hundreds of prayerful protesters when a federal judge ordered the state's top judge, Ray Moore, to remove the monument Moore had erected two years earlier.

The federal judge ruled the Constitutional separation of church and state barred the statue from public grounds. Moore's supporters contend the statue merely reflected the religious basis for America's laws.

Workers slid the monument onto a hand-truck and wheeled it away shortly after 10 a.m. as groups of sign-waving demonstrators, many of whom had maintained a vigil over several days and nights, waited and watched.

Protest organizers had asked the crowd not to rush the building or do anything except pray. As the monument was being removed from the rotunda, dozens of protesters knelt or prostrated themselves.

"If it takes 75 years to reclaim this land for righteousness, God find us and our children and our children's children ready," said the Rev. Rob Schenck, president of the national clergy council.

Those seeking removal of the monument from its public site had said they were grateful that it was finally being moved.

"This is a tremendous victory for the rule of law and respect for religious diversity," the Rev. Barry Lynn, executive director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State, one of the groups suing to remove Moore's monument.

It was not clear where the statue was being brought. Patrick Mahoney, director of the Christian Defense Coalition, said he was told the monument will be placed in another location in the building.

There is nothing in the court order that prohibits Alabama from having the monument in the courthouse so long as it is not placed in a public place, according to CBS News legal analyst Andrew Cohen.

Mahoney said building manager Graham George told him he would be allowed inside to see the monument after it was moved. Mahoney said he doesn't know whether the monument's new location will be accessible to the public.

Moore erected the monument with no input from his fellow state judges. The federal judge ruled against the monument last year, and gave Moore a deadline of Aug. 20 to remove it.

When Moore refused, associate justices ordered it out, supported by Attorney General Bill Pryor. Moore also was suspended Friday on charges of violating canons of judicial ethics for refusing to obey the court order, and Pryor will oversee his prosecution.

Protesters have pinned their hopes on a last-ditch lawsuit filed in federal court in Mobile on behalf of a Christian radio talk show host and a pastor, who argues forced removal of the statue violates the constitutional guarantee of freedom of religion.

An afternoon hearing had been scheduled on the lawsuit, but Richard Cohen, a Southern Poverty Law Center attorney suing to remove the statue, said the state attorney general's office advised him the hearing was canceled.

Pryor, defending the associate justices, had argued that the Mobile court lacks jurisdiction and the complaint lacked merit.

Regardless of what court hears the case or when they hear it, legal experts did not give the statue's supporters much of a chance.

"Whatever you think of the Ten Commandments or their place in government buildings, the main issue right now is whether any state official anywhere can defy a federal court order that has been upheld upon review," says Cohen.

"As a purely legal matter, there really isn't a broad range of opinion about this. Most legal scholars agree that the monument, as situated, does violate the first amendment. And it's hard to find any objective expert who is willing to defend the right of a state official when that official is defying a federal court order," he added.

On Tuesday, about 150 monument supporters marched from the judicial building to the nearby Statehouse to meet with Pryor, but were met by 10 state police blocking the door. Seven representatives were allowed inside to meet with Pryor's chief deputy for about 20 minutes. The rest of the group remained outside, chanting, "Resign now! Resign now!"

Mahoney accused Pryor of political grandstanding to aid his nomination to a federal appeals court. It has been stalled by Senate Democrats who attacked the Republican Pryor for stands against abortion and in favor of state's rights.

Pryor has said it is his duty to uphold a federal court order to remove the marker.

In a brief speech Monday, Moore told a cheering crowd he would fight to return to his elected position and said the case against him is based not on something he did wrong but because "I've kept my oath."

Moore contended in an interview last week with the CBS News Early Show that the commandments and God are essential to the laws the courthouse applies.

"Indeed, we must acknowledge god because our Constitution says our justice system is established upon God. For him to say that I can't say who God is is to disestablish the justice system of this state," he said. "There's a moral law which the state has to honor."