Sound journalism, grounded in facts and Biblical truth | Donate

Pryor commitment

Anti-Bush senators in Washington continue to block the president's picks for U.S.

You have {{ remainingArticles }} free {{ counterWords }} remaining. You've read all of your free articles.

Full access isn’t far.

We can’t release more of our sound journalism and commentary without a subscription, but we can make it easy for you to come aboard.

Get into news that is grounded in facts and Biblical truth for as low as $3.99 per month.

Current WORLD subscribers can log in to access content. Just go to "SIGN IN" at the top right.


Already a member? Sign in.

In the parking lot outside Alabama's whitewashed government complex, space number 237 is empty. "Reserved for Moore" reads the red lettering against a white background, but Roy Moore isn't at work today-and he may not be back for quite a while. Nearby, the attorney general's parking space is occupied, though the "reserved" sign has been removed, presumably for security reasons. When you're known as an enemy of the Ten Commandments in Alabama, you don't want to advertise.

Many Alabamians would love to see the parking situation reversed. They want their beloved Chief Justice Moore, the man who stood up to federal judicial tyranny, back on the bench. And William Pryor, the attorney general who helped force Mr. Moore into an unpaid leave? They want to see him sent packing.

That's unfamiliar territory for Mr. Pryor, who was just 34 when first elected attorney general-the youngest in the nation. Last year, Alabamians sent him back to Montgomery with 59 percent of the vote, and earlier this year President Bush nominated him for a seat on the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals. At 41, there seemed to be no limit to Mr. Pryor's career trajectory.

But then he ran into Roy's Rock. When a federal judge ordered the 2-1/2-ton monument to the Ten Commandments removed, Mr. Pryor had the unenviable job of enforcing the court order.

Maybe Judge Moore didn't think he would do it. After all, the two men got along well enough in social situations, they were both members of the Republican Party, and they were both deeply conservative and deeply religious. But just weeks before, in a fractious nomination hearing before the Senate Judiciary Committee, Mr. Pryor had insisted that he would not be a judicial activist: "I have a record as attorney general that is separate from my personal beliefs, and I have demonstrated as attorney general that I'm able to set aside my personal beliefs and follow the law, even when I strongly disagree with the law."

Democrats on the panel were skeptical, and only a forced vote along party lines got the nomination out of committee, where it immediately ran smack into a partisan filibuster. Meanwhile, back in Alabama, Mr. Pryor got the chance to prove he meant what he said. Although he kept a personal copy of the Ten Commandments on his own office wall-though he believed that Judge Moore was right and the federal courts were wrong-he ordered the granite monument removed from public view in accordance with the judge's ruling. Not even the pleas and prayers of his own supporters could dissuade him. On Aug. 27, after a brief but tense standoff, workers carted away the monument-and possibly Mr. Pryor's political career, as well.

Religious conservatives who once hailed Mr. Pryor as a hero turned on him. More than 100 monument supporters left their vigil at the judicial building to stand under Mr. Pryor's window chanting "Resign now! Resign now!" Rob Schenck of the National Clergy Council accused Mr. Pryor of "moral cowardice," and former presidential candidate Alan Keyes said the attorney general was "unfit to be on the bench."

"The New York Times, The Washington Post, the ACLU-I expect them to criticize me," Mr. Pryor says, rolling his eyes. "I'd be worried if they didn't." But criticism from his friends is harder to take. What hurt him most came from "a Christian leader that I greatly respect," comparing him to an earlier Alabama attorney general who failed to defend Rosa Parks in her quiet act of civil disobedience.

"That wasn't fair," he says. "It wasn't right." His voice trails away and he looks at the floor, clearly uncomfortable talking about his feelings. But he can't let the Rosa Parks comparison slip by unchallenged. He doesn't want to talk about his personal ordeal, but civil disobedience is a principle, and he has to make his position clear.

"[Martin Luther] King argued persuasively that because blacks in the South did not have real recourse through the political and legal system, their only recourse was to engage in civil disobedience. There was no right of equal access. They were denied the right to vote, even the right to assemble and speak freely. White people didn't face that then, and we certainly don't face it in this situation."

Not that Mr. Pryor rejects civil disobedience completely, though he is Alabama's top enforcer of the law. "As a Christian, I think we're all supposed to submit to governing authorities," he says, rattling off three biblical passages-from Matthew to 1 Peter-that illustrate his point. "At the same time, I do have a perspective that you have to disobey government when it flatly contradicts your moral obligations. But those are extreme circumstances, such as being ordered to worship a graven image. If you were being ordered to do that as an individual, you would be bound to disobey."

The key word there, Mr. Pryor believes, is "individual." For private citizens, civil disobedience is the last resort in matters of conscience. But not for public officials like Chief Justice Moore: "I do not believe that the right to engage in civil disobedience applies to a public official. If you're bound by a court order that you cannot obey, and you're a public official, I think you're obligated to resign."

When Mr. Moore resisted instead of resigning, he left Mr. Pryor in an uncomfortable and unpopular position. But the attorney general says he never for a moment doubted what he had to do.

"This was not a tough call," he says. "I believe that our freedom depends on the rule of law. The reason the American experiment has been successful is because we're a nation of laws and not of men. No person is above the law. We have to abide by the law even when we disagree with it. That is the guiding principle of my public service."

That principle, however, has become anathema to many conservatives fed up with what they see as a steadily encroaching secularism encouraged by the federal courts. Judge Moore and his legal team argued that the nonestablishment clause of the First Amendment applies only to Congress, and that state officers are essentially free to decide religious questions for themselves.

But Mr. Pryor wonders whether Christians have fully thought through the implications of such a radical states-rights stance. After all, if the nonestablishment clause cannot be enforced on the states, then neither can other clauses in the First Amendment, including guarantees of free religious exercise or free speech. And if top state officials can simply ignore First Amendment decisions with which they disagree, then New York, for example, would likely defy the Supreme Court's recent decision that public schools there must allow meetings of Bible study groups such as the Good News Club.

The bottom line, according to Mr. Pryor, is that court rulings must be obeyed, even when they seem wrong-headed. "In every lawsuit in America, the loser of the case thinks the judge was wrong. But they nevertheless have an obligation to follow the court orders. We're all bound by those court decisions."

To conservative critics, that sounds either cowardly or downright craven. With Mr. Pryor's nomination to the federal bench mired in a Senate filibuster, some have charged that he's posturing to win Democratic support. "We feel betrayed," said Patrick Mahoney of the Christian Defense Coalition after leading a march calling for Mr. Pryor's resignation. "We worked for this guy, and he sold us out.... Bill Pryor should be protecting the citizens of Alabama instead of campaigning to get confirmation to the 11th Circuit."

If that is his goal, however, then Mr. Pryor is one of the worst campaigners ever. During June confirmation hearings, Democrats repeatedly attacked his conservative record. "Mr. Pryor is obviously a man of great political passion and strongly held views," said Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), a member of the judiciary committee. "And that's fine. But as a judge, one has to be able to set aside these views and apply the law evenly. And frankly ... I do not believe he can do that."

Nor does she still. Three of Mr. Pryor's most vocal Senate critics-Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.), and Ms. Feinstein-refused to tell WORLD whether they had changed their minds in light of the recent controversy, and none has broken ranks to halt the filibuster. David Carle, a spokesman for Mr. Leahy, said earlier that the Vermont senator is still opposed to Mr. Pryor's nomination: "Mr. Pryor's recent decision to step back from his previous support for Justice Moore's extremism shows again that he is a smart politician, but it does nothing to discount the ample evidence against his suitability to be an impartial judge."

A smart politician, though, would surely have figured out that Democrats like Sen. Leahy would never change their position, and that playing to Washington would only alienate voters back home. That leaves Mr. Pryor looking like a political casualty, his promising career dashed against a granite monument. Still, he says, if he had it all to do over again, he wouldn't change a thing. "Zero regrets. None at all. Like I said, this was not a tough call. I have to do my duty, whether it's going to be popular or not."

And even if it means he loses a coveted parking space.

Bob Jones Bob is a former WORLD reporter.


Please wait while we load the latest comments...


Please register, subscribe, or login to comment on this article.