It’s good to see that Paul Weyrich, Richard Land, and Pat Robertson have all taken Judge Roy Moore to task for defying a federal court order, even though they agree with him (as I do) that his display of the Ten Commandments does not violate the Constitution.
I am no fan of judicial supremacy. Many public officials, most prominently Abraham Lincoln, have maintained that no court decision could legally bind them to act, in parallel cases, as though the court’s reasoning were sound. Thus the State Department could issue passports to black citizens even after the Supreme Court made its ruling in Dred Scott. But Lincoln never denied that the parties to a case were bound to follow judicial decisions. When a federal court issues an order to a public official by name–even if that order is foolish or mistaken, as I think this one is–he is bound to follow it.
He always has the option of resigning in protest, perhaps even of engaging in official civil disobedience (that one I need to think through). But you can’t simultaneously claim that the federal courts have no moral right to judge in a matter while also filing an appeal with them, as the Alabama chief justice has done.
Acts of civil disobedience have to be evaluated based on moral criteria. The Washington Post quotes D. James Kennedy as saying that Alabama presents an “exceptional case” where civil disobedience is required, because the court order is an attempt to put “man’s law” above “God’s law.” If Moore were being ordered to deny the existence of God or the validity of the commandments, or to repudiate the commandments, he would indeed be morally obligated to commit civil disobedience. But he has not been ordered to do any of those things. Nor has he been ordered to give his assent to the proposition that his display violates the Constitution. There cannot be an obligation in conscience to keep a particular bloc of granite in a particular place. And when there is no moral obligation to disobey “man’s law,” there is a moral obligation to follow it.