Judge Charles Price, a circuit court judge in Montgomery, Alabama, was honored in 1997 for his devotion to the principles of the American Constitution that compelled him to rule that a fellow circuit court judge's courtroom display of the Ten Commandments for religious purposes was a violation of the First Amendment.
In 1995, Etowah County (Alabama) Judge Roy Moore was sued by the American Civil Liberties Union on behalf of two Etowah County residents for opening court sessions with exclusively Christian prayer and for displaying the Ten Commandments behind his bench. The original lawsuit was dismissed, but Governor Fob James and the State of Alabama filed suit against Judge Moore, the ACLU and the American Freethought Association in an effort to get a state judge to rule whether or not Judge Moore’s actions were unconstitutional. In September 1996, all parties agreed to forego a trial and let Montgomery County Circuit Judge Charles Price decide the issue.
Judge Price ruled in November 1996 that although prayer in the courtroom is unconstitutional, Judge Moore’s display of the Ten Commandments could remain. After visiting the courtroom in February 1997, however, Judge Price reversed his earlier ruling and found that the two plaques containing the Ten Commandments violated the Establishment Clause of the U.S. Constitution and the Constitution of Alabama. Judge Price ordered Judge Moore to either remove the Ten Commandments or place them in a more historical context by displaying them with other symbols of law such as the Bill of Rights.
Boston — An elected judge, who placed his political future in jeopardy by going against popular sentiment in a case involving separation of Church and State, has been selected as the winner of the 1997 John F. Kennedy Profile in Courage Award.
The John F. Kennedy Library Foundation announced that Charles Price, Circuit Court Judge of Montgomery, Alabama, was singled out for the integrity and political courage he demonstrated by reversing his own decision and ruling that fellow Circuit Court Judge Roy Moore must remove or modify his courtroom display of the Ten Commandments, so as not to violate the First Amendment.
So unpopular was Judge Price’s order, that Alabama Governor Fob James threatened to call out the National Guard and state troopers to keep his order from being carried out. The U.S. House of Representatives subsequently endorsed Judge Moore’s actions, and by a vote of 295-125, adopted a non-binding resolution stating that the ten commandments, as “the cornerstone of a fair and just society,” should be allowed in government offices and courthouses. Even the Majority leader of the U.S. Senate personally called Judge Moore to congratulate him on his defiant stand.
Though a Sunday School teacher and a steward of his own church, Judge Price was accused of waging an assault on Christianity and on religion at an April 12 rally in Montgomery attended by 20,000 supporters of Judge Moore and Governor James.
Price, who was reelected to his third consecutive six-year term in 1996, clearly placed his promising political future in jeopardy by his unpopular decision.
Judge Price’s order has been stayed pending appeal to the Alabama State Supreme Court.
In 1995, Etowah Circuit Judge Roy Moore was sued by the American Civil Liberties Union of Alabama on behalf of two Etowah County residents for opening court sessions with exclusively Christian prayer led by himself or by Protestant ministers and for displaying the Ten Commandments behind his bench.
The original ACLU lawsuit was dismissed. But Governor Fob James and the State of Alabama filed suit against Judge Moore, the ACLU and the American Freethought Association in an effort to get a state judge to rule whether or not Judge Moore’s actions were unconstitutional.
In September, 1996 all parties agreed to forego a trial and let Montgomery Circuit Judge Charles Price decide the issue.
On the matter of prayer in the courtroom, lawyers for the defendants argued that while a 1983 U.S. Supreme Court ruling (Marsh v. Chambers) found that it was constitutional to open the Nebraska Legislature with a prayer every day, there was major difference in what elected officials do in the state legislature or U.S. Congress where people are on equal footing, and a judge calling for prayer in his courtroom. Jurors are in the courtroom, they argued, because, by law, they have to be. They dare not risk the displeasure of the presiding judge, nor do they have the freedom to do what they please. At issue was not the religious beliefs of Judge Moore, but rather the imposition of a particular religion’s tenets and practices into an official function of a branch of government.
On November 22, 1996, Judge Price ruled that prayer in the state’s court’s is unconstitutional. In his decision, Price wrote:
The Court finds that Judge Moore, as well as other judges in Alabama, invite prayer by clergy and others at the opening of jury sessions. Judge Moore has routinely invited Christian clergy to offer prayer at such sessions; those prayers have routinely been Christian prayers. Although not necessary to the resolution of this case, Judge More has acknowledged that through prayer in his court, he is promoting religion
Prayers conducted or arranged by a judge or officer of an Alabama court delivered to jurors summoned to perform their legal duty in an Alabama court constitute state-sponsored prayer. State-sponsored prayers that demonstrate a denominational preference are proscribed by the Establishment Clause of the United States Constitution.
Though Price ordered Judge Moore to stop arranging or conducting prayer in the state courts, Judge Moore said he would not obey the order. He further stated that he would not permit Muslim or Buddhist prayers in his courtroom because “they do not acknowledge the God of the holy Bible on which this country was founded.”
As to the two hand carved plaques of the Ten Commandments hanging on wall behind Judge Moore’s bench, Price ruled on November 22 that they were part of a historical and educational display and did not violate the Establishment Clause of the US Constitution. Judge Moore’s display of the Ten Commandments could remain, Price ruled.
In December, the American Civil Liberties Union appealed the ruling on the Ten Commandments. Judge Moore himself stated that Judge Price’s ruling on the Ten Commandments was erroneous, stating unequivocally that the plaques were not in the courtroom for a historical, judicial or educational purpose, but rather, and clearly to promote religion.
Based on the motion by the ACLU, Judge Price personally visited Judge Moore’s courtroom at the Etowah County Courthouse in Gadsden Alabama on February 7, 1997 to view the Ten Commandments.
On February 10, Price reversed his earlier ruling and found that the two-hand carved plaques containing the ten commandments violate the Establishment Clause of the U.S. Constitution and the Constitution of Alabama. Price ordered Judge Moore to either remove the Ten Commandments or place them in a more historical context by displaying them with other symbols of law such as the Bill of Rights and Declaration of Independence. Judge Moore responded to the ruling by saying, “I will not surround the Ten Commandments with other items to secularize them. That’s putting man above God.”
In his ruling Price found that “it is obvious that the sole purpose for the plaques hanging in the courtroom in such a fashion is ‘purely religious.’” He stated that the lone plaques behind Judge Moore’s bench could “be seen from any position in the courtroom, however more prominently from the jury box,” and that it was there “for the obvious and stated purpose of promoting religion.”
In his February 10 decision, Price wrote:
The court states...to those who have asked the court by phone calls, individual and multiple signature letters, and post cards to ‘save the Ten Commandments’ all of whom the Court respects, that the Ten Commandments are not in peril. They are neither stained, tarnished, nor thrashed. They may be displayed in every church, synagogue, temple, mosque, home, and storefront. They may be displayed in cars, on lawns and in corporate boardrooms. Where this precious gift cannot and should not be displayed as an obvious religious text or to promote religion is on government property (particularly in a courtroom).
Judge Price’s ruling noted that the violation could be remedied by including the Ten Commandments in a larger display of nonreligious and/or historical items, noting that such a display can be put in place around the plaques on the wall in this matter within a matter of minutes.
Governor Fob James, having threatened to call out the National Guard to prevent the removal of the Ten Commandments, joined state Attorney General Bill Pryor in asking Judge Price to delay his Ten Commandment ruling. When Price refused to do so, the state won a stay in the ruling from the Alabama Supreme Court pending appeal.
An April 12 rally attended by 20,000 people in Montgomery was held to protest Judge Price’s decision and to show support for Judge Moore’s public defiance of his court order. Religious conservatives, including Ralph Reed and former GOP presidential candidate Alan Keyes, attended the rally. Speakers accused Price and the judicial system of waging an assault on Christianity and on religion. and pledged the support of the the Christian Coalition’s 2 million members to resist Price’s order.
A native of Montgomery, Alabama, Charles Price attended George Washington Carver High School; Virginia Union College in Richmond, VA; and George Washington University Law School.
Price served six years in the United States Army -- three years with the green Beret (Special Forces) and three years with the 82nd Airborne Division. He also served with the U.S. Army Reserve from which he retired in 1992, having held the rank of Lt. Colonel, Judge Advocate General’s Corps.
Price began his legal career in the civil division at the Department of Justice in Washington. In 1973 he became an Assistant Attorney General for the State of Alabama. In 1974, he was appointed Acting District Attorney for Escambia County, Alabama in 1974, becoming the first black district attorney in Alabama’s history and the only black district attorney in the country. In 1975 he became Deputy District Attorney for Montgomery County, holding that position until 1978 when he entered private practice.
Judge Price was appointed Assistant Municipal Judge for the City of Montgomery in 1982; on April 4, 1983, Governor George Wallace appointed him Montgomery County Circuit Judge, the first black to hold this position in Montgomery County. He won election to his first six-year term in 1984, and was reelected in 1990 and 1996.
Judge Price has served as adjunct instructor of Political Science and Criminal Justice at Alabama State University, and currently serves as adjunct professor of law at Jones Law School and the University of Alabama. He is a member of the Executive Committee of the National Bar Association’s Judicial Council.
Price is a steward of St. John’s African Methodist Episcopal Church in Montgomery, and a teacher at St. John’s Sunday school.
He is married to Bernice B. Price, an Assistant Professor of Humanities at Alabama State University. They have two children: Susan Yvette Price, a graduate of Princeton University and the University of Virginia Law School; and Charles Price, II, a junior at Moorehouse College.
Judge Price is the second citizen of Alabama to be awarded the prestigious Profile in Courage Award. The other was Carl Elliott of Jasper, who served in the U.S. House from 1949-65, when his moderate racial views led to his defeat. Price is the eighth individual and the first African-American to receive the John F. Kennedy Profile in Courage Award.
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Assembled from news reports and court documents.