A decade has passed and the cultural flashpoints are new, but Alabama’s Chief Justice Roy Moore hasn’t changed.
Moore was once best known for having a monument to the Ten Commandments built at a public Alabama judicial building. Federal courts ordered him to take it down in 2003. He refused. And eventually, Moore was booted from the bench.
Since then, Moore’s mounted two unsuccessful gubernatorial bids. But in 2012, he won a statewide election to reclaim his seat as the chief justice of the state’s Supreme Court.
Now, he finds himself staring down another federal ruling – the one allowing same-sex marriages.
Moore sent last-minute instructions Sunday night to Alabama’s probate judges, ordering them to ignore a federal ruling that made their state the 37th to allow same-sex marriages, in favor of a state law that limits marriage to one man and one woman.
As the same-sex marriage issue takes center stage – the U.S. Supreme Court will hear arguments this spring – Moore’s move could turn him into the target, as he was in 2003. Supporters of same-sex marriage have long called it a human rights issue and Moore’s criticism of this federal ruling recalls southern resistance to civil rights developments decades ago.
And though many GOP presidential contenders, in the face of rapidly moving public opinion, have turned to the procedural argument in favor of states’ rights to decide the issue, Moore’s stand could well force them to weigh in more directly.
The campaigns of Republicans who have run on conservative cultural values, like former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee and former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum, didn’t respond to requests for comment Monday on Moore’s instructions.
But socially conservative organizations rallied to Moore’s defense.
National Organization for Marriage President Brian Brown told his group’s supporters that “this is the kind of principled stand we need more of our public officials to take – and we need to take such a stand ourselves, too.”
Tony Perkins, the president of the Family Research Council, also praised Moore.
“Unelected judges and a handful of lawyers have been pushing state marriage amendments over like sleeping cows,” he said on his website. “Meanwhile, stunned Americans have struggled to make sense of a legal system that puts its own political agenda ahead of the expressed will of the people.”
The Southern Poverty Law Center, meanwhile, is filing an ethics complaint against Moore, seeking to have the chief justice sanctioned.
The Alabama battle is unfolding as Americans become increasingly accepting of gay, lesbian and transgender people – but a survey commissioned by the advocacy group GLAAD found that nearly one-third of Americans are uncomfortable learning that their family members, friends, doctors, politicians and coworkers are LGBT.
In Alabama, it appeared that many counties were following the conservative judge’s orders.
At least 53 of Alabama’s 67 counties were not issuing marriage licenses to same-sex couples on Monday, according to the Human Rights Campaign, a pro-gay marriage group that has tracked developments on the ground there.
Moore, meanwhile, was giving interviews on Monday touting his state’s right to reject the federal ruling.
“The U.S. district courts have no power or authority to redefine marriage,” Moore told NBC News. “Once you start redefining marriage, that’s the ultimate power. Would it overturn the laws of incest? Bigamy? Polygamy? How far do they go?”
“A lot of states in this union have caved to such unlawful authority, and this is not one,” Moore said. “This is Alabama. We don’t give up the recognition that law has bounds.”
Still, Moore’s instructions conflict with those of the federal court – particularly after the U.S. Supreme Court refused to stay the lower court’s ruling ahead of what’s widely expected to be a federal ruling on the legality of same-sex marriage in June.
Alabama Gov. Robert Bentley, a Republican, said he understood the position that the contrasting instructions put probate judges in, and he wouldn’t take action against any of them.
“This issue has created confusion with conflicting direction for probate judges in Alabama,” he said in a statement issued on Monday. “Probate judges have a unique responsibility in our state, and I support them. I will not take any action against probate judges, which would only serve to further complicate this issue.”