WASHINGTON -- As Republican strategists weigh the party's prospects for 2006 and 2008, they are increasingly worried about a political confrontation with Roy S. Moore, the former chief justice of the Alabama Supreme Court who became a hero to religious conservatives when he refused to follow a federal court order to remove a Ten Commandments monument from the state's judicial building.
Moore, a Republican who enjoys widespread support in his home state, is poised to run against a vulnerable Republican governor. If he wins, some party strategists speculate, he could defy a federal court order again by erecting a religious monument outside the Alabama state Capitol building. With the 2008 presidential race looming, President Bush would then face a no-win decision: either call out the National Guard to enforce a court order against a religious display on state grounds or allow a fellow born-again Christian to defy the courts.
The pitched political warfare over the direction of the nation's courts has energized many GOP voters, but it has also produced a restless Christian right movement that contends Bush has been too moderate on issues ranging from gay marriage to judicial nominations to the Terri Schiavo case. These conservatives want Moore to run for president as a platform for their cause.
''Moore's a lot like George Wallace," William H. Stewart, political science professor at the University of Alabama, said in a reference to the Democratic Alabama governor who stood in a schoolhouse door to block a federal desegregation order, forcing President Kennedy to federalize and send in Alabama National Guard units.
Moore is adroitly using his newfound celebrity over the Ten Commandments controversy to build a national following. Earlier this year, he was among the Christian conservatives who angrily asserted that Governor Jeb Bush of Florida should have used his executive powers to override a string of court orders and save the life of the brain-damaged Schiavo. Some even wanted the governor to use police force to rescue her.
They also contend the president should have done more than sign legislation giving Schiavo's parents new legal recourse, and they were infuriated when he distanced himself from fellow conservatives, including the House majority leader, Tom DeLay of Texas, who said activist judges in such cases should be investigated and impeached.
Polls indicate that Moore, a 58-year-old graduate of West Point, has a good shot at beating Governor Bob Riley in next year's Republican primary. Riley angered conservatives by signing the largest tax increase in Alabama history in an effort to get the state's fiscal house in order and make the tax code more progressive. ''There's enough people in Alabama clamoring for him [Moore] to run that I don't see that he has much choice," said Baptist minister Rick Scarborough, who chairs the Judeo-Christian Council for Constitutional Restoration.
Meanwhile, the former state chief justice is bolstering his national standing. He has filed amicus curiae briefs in two Supreme Court cases expected to be decided this month that will determine whether displays of the Ten Commandments on public grounds in Texas and Kentucky violate the US Constitution.
On Capitol Hill, Moore is lobbying for legislation in Congress to strip federal courts, including the Supreme Court, of jurisdiction over any challenges to government agencies or officials that acknowledge ''God as the sovereign source of law, liberty, or government."
The two-year saga over the Ten Commandments monument that led to Moore's removal from the Alabama high court made him a hero to the Christian right. A little-noticed ''Judas" in the Moore parable is William Pryor, the appeals court justice confirmed by the Senate last week and denounced by Democrats as a right-wing ideologue. As Alabama attorney general, Pryor enforced the court order requiring Moore to remove the monument from the judicial building because it was deemed an illegal religious display.
To Moore, Pryor is a symbol of what's wrong with the courts and with the Republican leadership of President Bush. GOP leaders are ''building a cistern that doesn't hold water," the guarded but intense Moore said in a recent interview.
At a recent conference of conservatives in Washington, Moore decried Pryor as one of the judges ''who say you cannot acknowledge God."
In his autobiography, ''So Help Me God: The Ten Commandments, Judicial Tyranny, and the Battle for Religious Freedom," Moore frequently casts himself as a lone man of principle battling dark forces.
When older cadets hazed him at West Point, he ''learned how to stand up to intimidation," he writes. As a company commander in Vietnam, he became a ''marked man," he says, because of his insistence on imposing strict discipline on drug-addled soldiers.
As a deputy district attorney in Etowah County in the late 1970s, he was referred for disciplinary action, he said, because he dared question spending priorities in the police budget; in the end he was not disciplined.
In 1982, he failed in his first race for circuit court judge because ''I was a threat to the system, and the system had closed ranks to defeat me."
He lost another race in 1986, this time for district attorney. ''The criminal defense bar united against me, and the opposition among political insiders was too strong to overcome," he recalled.
After a mutual friend pleaded Moore's case to Governor Guy Hunt, a Republican, Moore was appointed to fill a circuit court judge position left vacant by a death. ''God had given me something that I had not been able to obtain through my own efforts many years before," he writes in his book.
Fully aware that he would attract a lawsuit, Moore hung in his courtroom a redwood plaque of the Ten Commandments. A local ACLU attorney complained; Moore described this as ''the first time the civil rights group attempted to intimidate me."
He also began opening his court sessions with a prayer. In 1994, six months into his tenure, the ACLU recorded his prayer -- and a local star was born. The media covered the subsequent lawsuit, crowds singing ''Amazing Grace" showed up in support. A year later, Moore launched his race for chief justice of the Alabama Supreme Court.
His tenure on the circuit court had produced plenty of detractors. ''Roy was never that interested in what the law was versus what he wanted to do," said James Hedgespeth, the county's district attorney for 18 years and a Democrat who describes his personal relations with Moore as cordial. ''I always thought the code books in his office were just for decoration. He always felt he knew better than anyone else."
Moore's supporters disagree. Conservative Caucus chairman Howard Phillips said Moore, a University of Alabama law graduate, ''has a knowledge of constitutional history that is breathtaking."
In his campaign for chief justice, however, any assessments of Moore's legal mind were overwhelmed by the noise surrounding the ACLU's challenge to his public professions of religion.
After Moore won, he contracted for the construction of the 2 1/2-ton monument bearing the Ten Commandments, all the while wondering whether his fellow justices would ''be supportive or would they turn on me?"
In 2004, after the disciplinary panel had forced Moore to resign, supporters urged him to run for president, but he decided the timing was not right. Phillips compares Moore's national popularity to that of Pat Robertson, the TV evangelist whose 1988 bid for president divided the GOP, and said Moore is well-positioned to consider his own run.
''There's no question he would heighten the debate on the whole issue of religion and politics," Scarborough said. ''And nationally, there is a core following that would be faithful to him."
© Copyright 2005 Boston Globe