09/08/2003 at 01:00 AM EDT
They came as if on a pilgrimage—people such as Larry Ellard, an unemployed Vietnam veteran, who decided at 2 a.m. to drive to Montgomery's Alabama Judicial Building from Birmingham. "I was determined," says Ellard, 53. "I had a tank of gas and $8 in my pocket." Like the rest, he was there to pray for a 5,280-lb. granite monument of the Ten Commandments and to pledge support for Alabama Chief Justice Roy Moore, the maverick judge who had the big stone tablet installed. "We're ready to lay down our lives," says Jerry Layne, 65, a Chattanooga preacher. "Thank God for Roy Moore."
Since mid-August, fivescore protesters have rallied in Montgomery, where a fiery legal drama played out around them. The controversy began two years ago when Moore, now 56, had the Commandments installed in the building's rotunda in the dead of night. Civil rights groups objected, citing separation of church and state, and on Nov. 18, 2002, a federal judge ordered that the block be removed. Moore left it right where it was, and on Aug. 21 eight members of his own court overruled him. Now suspended pending a judicial hearing, Moore may lose his job—and his pension. Still, "I cannot forsake my conscience," he said. "And I will never, never deny the God upon whom our laws are based."
The future of the monument—which may be moved to Moore's private chambers—and that of the judge remain unclear. But a vast majority of Alabamans support his stance, according to a July poll, and some in the state are already calling him the next governor. According to his brother Jerry, 54, Moore says he is at peace no matter what: "He told me, 'It's still in God's hands.' "