BIRMINGHAM, Ala. (AP) -- Christian conservatives who have spent years opposing court rulings that limit religion in American public life have a new goal: electing one of their most vocal champions as chief justice of the Alabama Supreme Court.
Republican Roy Moore, known around the country as the ''Ten Commandments Judge'' for fighting to display the Old Testament laws in his Etowah County courtroom, is running against Democratic Appeals Court Judge Sharon Yates for the position.
Moore's Ten Commandments crusade, which began in the mid-1990s, has inspired Christians to fight for similar displays in other states. Now, if elected to Alabama's highest court, Moore promises to try to restore what he calls the ''moral foundation'' of American law -- Christian principles and beliefs -- to society. He says no court has the right to limit the worship of God.
Moore's typical campaign speech relies heavily on long passages of court rulings, Colonial-era writings and 1770s speeches he has memorized.
''The problem in our nation today is that judges are legislating right and wrong,'' he said during a recent appearance in Birmingham.
Moore has also said: ''There is an absolute truth, and the truth is in the Bible. It represents the truth upon which this nation was founded and is the basis of the laws of our nation.''
Moore, a West Point graduate and Vietnam veteran, supports prayer in school and opposes abortion and homosexuality as sins. A poet in his spare time, he has written verse referring to the United States as a nation that has become a ''moral slum'' as it banished God from public view.
Yates, in her campaign biographical materials, advertises her own church membership. She has avoided criticizing Moore's position on matters of faith. ''I don't have a problem with his position on the Ten Commandments,'' she says.
While virtually all of Yates' campaign donors are from Alabama, scores of people from across the nation have given to Moore's campaign.
The out-of-state donors include John and Beverly Trimmell of Liberal, Kan. The couple, conservative Christians who heard Moore speak at a conference in Texas, gave him $2,000 out of their belief that judges should be ''righteous,'' Mrs. Trimmell said.
''He's just very strong in his belief that this country was founded on morality and faith in God, and that our laws are based on the Ten Commandments,'' she says.
The focus on religion in a judicial race worries some.
Jim Evans, a Southern Baptist minister in suburban Birmingham, says he fears that adherence to a religion -- Christianity in particular -- could become a ''litmus test'' for state candidates.
''You turn politicians into theologians,'' says Evans, president of The Interfaith Alliance of Alabama, which supports the separation of church and state.
The outcome is difficult to gauge. The most recent poll, conducted in late August, showed the race close, with Moore at 41 percent support, Yates with 35 percent and 23 percent undecided. The margin of error was 5 percentage points.
But polls have underestimated Moore's support before. After receiving only 38 percent support in a poll before the June primary, Moore won the GOP nomination with 55 percent of the vote.
The office of chief justice is particularly powerful in Alabama, which the American Bar Association lists as one of only eight states to elect judges in partisan elections.
Alabama's nine-member Supreme Court is split into two divisions that hear cases. Each panel consists of four associate justices plus the chief justice, who is the only member of the court to consider every case.
''The chief justice sets the tone for the administration of the entire court system,'' says E.C. ''Sonny'' Hornsby, who formerly held the post. ''His work habits, tone and action matter greatly.''
Yates has served on the Alabama Court of Civil Appeals since 1992, when she became the first woman elected to the court. She was re-elected to a six-year term in 1998. Previously, she was an attorney in private practice and staff lawyer for the Supreme Court.
Moore was an assistant prosecutor and a lawyer before being appointed circuit judge in Etowah County in 1992 by then-Gov. Guy Hunt, himself a Primitive Baptist preacher. Moore was elected to a six-year term in 1994.
The following year, Moore began gaining a national following among conservative Christians. Moore waged a court fight against the American Civil Liberties Union over a handmade Ten Commandments plaque he hung in court.
A Montgomery County judge ordered the plaque removed, but the state Supreme Court vacated the ruling on a technicality without deciding whether the display is constitutional.
Moore continues to display the Ten Commandments in his courtroom. He says he will take the plaque to the state judicial building in Montgomery if elected chief justice.
End Adv for Friday, Oct. 20, and thereafter
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