MONTGOMERY, Ala. - Alabama's chief justice, known on the national stage for fighting to display the Ten Commandments in a judicial building, is jumping into the gay marriage debate with his push for a states-led constitutional amendment defining the institution as a union between one man and one woman.
"The moral foundation of our country is under attack," Chief Justice Roy Moore said in an interview with The Associated Press.
He mailed letters Wednesday to all 50 governors urging them to get their legislatures to call for a convention to add an amendment to the U.S. Constitution saying the only union recognized by state and federal governments is "the union of one man and one woman." He also is setting up a website to rally public support.
Moore said the only way to stop judges who are finding new rights for gay unions is with a state-initiated constitutional amendment. "Government has become oppressive, and judges are warping the law," Moore said.
Seventeen states and the District of Columbia allow gay marriage. None is in the South, where every state has enacted a ban on same-sex marriage. In Virginia, a federal judge heard arguments this week on a lawsuit challenging the state's ban. Virginia's attorney general chose not to defend the law because he said it violates the equal protection clause of the 14th Amendment.
In Alabama, an openly gay state legislator who married her partner in Massachusetts said she expects most governors to toss Moore's letter.
"He's fighting a losing battle, and he probably knows that," Rep. Patricia Todd, D-Birmingham, said in an interview.
She said the chief justice should recognize Americans' view and the courts' views about the issue and how it has changed in recent years. "Get over it, buddy," Todd said.
But Moore said that "a great majority of the American people want to hold to the definition that a marriage is between a man and a woman," though he acknowledged an amendment would draw opposition from both sides of the political spectrum. Conservative political analyst Phyllis Schlafly has said a state-initiated convention would be "a prescription for political chaos, controversy and confrontation."
In the past, U.S. legislators have introduced federal marriage amendments, but Moore said he doesn't think Congress will offer one this year. The only alternative, he said, is going through Article V of the Constitution to get 34 states to agree that a convention is necessary.
An Article V convention has never been held, but Moore said, "I think the time is ripe for that to happen with the political atmosphere in Congress. They can't get along or agree on anything."
A lawyer with the American Civil Liberties Union said the 17 states that allow gay marriage aren't likely to reverse their positions and call for a constitutional amendment. "I think the chief justice has a math problem ahead of him," said James Esseks, director of the ACLU's Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Project.
Alabama Gov. Robert Bentley said he has no problem with what the chief justice is proposing, but his preference is leaving the issue to the people of each state.
"I am a states' rights person. Marriage licenses are issued by the state. I do believe that most things should be left on a state level," he said.
When Moore was elected in 2000, he placed a granite monument of the Ten Commandments in the state judicial building. A federal judge ruled that it had to be moved. Moore refused, and a state judicial court kicked him out of office in 2003 for disobeying the court order. Moore became known as "Alabama's Ten Commandments judge" as he traveled the country speaking to churches and conservative groups. Alabama voters re-elected him in 2012. He has not tried to bring the monument back.
Alabama's nine high court justices don't usually get involved in national issues, but Moore said it is appropriate for him to speak out because Alabama has a state constitutional amendment that recognizes a marriage as a union only between a man and a woman. "Basically, I'm upholding the law," he said.
Others say attitudes have changed in Alabama since the law's enactment. Last year, the leader of the College Republican Federation of Alabama supported the U.S. Supreme Court's decision overturning the Defense of Marriage Act. That upset the state Republican Party chairman, who proposed a rule change aimed at keeping party leaders from taking public positions contrary to party policy. The state GOP executive committee wouldn't approve it.
"That is a great example of where the country is moving," Esseks said.