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Ten commandments case touches a nerve

A recent poll finds 72 percent of Americans think it is proper for the ten commandments to be displayed in a government building. So why is there such a debate over the role of God in public places? NBC's Tom Brokaw reports.
/ Source: NBC News

Both candidates speak often about their faith on the campaign trail.

"That's the great thing about America — it's the right to worship the way you see fit. Prayer and religion sustain me. I receive calmness in the storms of the presidency," said President Bush recently.

His opponent Sen. Kerry: "I went to a church school and I was taught that the two greatest commandments are: love the Lord, your God, with all your mind, your body and your soul. And love your neighbor as yourself."

Earlier this year, the Supreme Court handed victories to both sides of the religion debate. First, it refused to authorize the use of public funds to train theology students. And most notably, it allowed the phrase "under God" to remain in the pledge of Allegiance by sidestepping a case that questioned it.

At the center of the religious battle is Roy Moore, who was Chief Justice of Alabama's Supreme Court when he designed a monument bearing the ten commandments, then had it installed in the rotunda of Alabama's judicial building.

"This case is not about the ten commandments," said Moore at the time. "It's not about a monument. It's not about religion. It's not even about me. It's about whether or not the state can acknowledge God!"

Moore's monument ignited lawsuits, protests and eventually cost him his job.

Does he think that the federal court system in this country has made it more difficult than it ought to be for people of faith to exercise their passions about religion?

"When they take the ten commandments out of the courthouse in Montgomery and put it in a closet, because it acknowledges God, and yet on the top of their building on the east pediment, stands a statue of Moses holding up two plaques of the ten commandments, it's hypocrisy, and they've usurped their jurisdiction," says Moore.

So why haven't other like-minded Congressmen or Senators or even President Bush taken up the issue?

"I think he's getting bad advice as to what people really value most," says Moore. "That's why so many Christians stay away from the polls. It's because they know morality in this country is sinking. And that the leadership in this country of both parties have turned their back on God."

One Alabaman who believes Moore is perverting the gospel is Dr. Gorman Houston, Jr.

"I don't believe that the problems of our society come about because of an overactive judiciary," says Dr. Houston. "I believe the problems of our society have come about because of an underactive church! It is so tempting to want to follow Jesus at a distance!"

Dr. Houston is Senior Pastor at the Dauphin Way United Methodist Church in Mobile. And he's the son of the very man who replaced Moore as the Chief Justice of the Alabama Supreme Court. His father issued the order to remove the monument, when Moore would not. Dr. Houston feels that Judge Moore and his followers mistakenly believe that mottos and monuments will cure society's ills.

"You often hear some of his supporters saying we want to go back to a time when America was God-fearing," says Dr. Houston. "The question is — when was that? Is that when we were annihilating the indigenous people of North America? Is that when we were enslaving Africans? Is that when we were denying civil rights to people? It was certainly not at a time when there was a great sense of justice or righteousness among the people."

So does Roy Moore think he has a following in America for his views?

"People understand the truth," he says. "They flock to the truth. And the following is growing. It's growing all across this country."

Two God-fearing, patriotic Alabamans — each giving voice to distinctly different views on the place of church and faith in public life, and their respective passions echo across America.