MONTGOMERY, Ala. -- Alabama Chief Justice Roy Moore, who became a hero to religious conservatives for refusing to remove his granite Ten Commandments monument from the state courthouse, was thrown off the bench Thursday by a judicial ethics panel for having "placed himself above the law."
"I have absolutely no regrets. I have done what I was sworn to do," Moore declared afterward, drawing applause from dozens of supporters at the courthouse. "It's about whether or not you can acknowledge God as a source of our law and our liberty. That's all I've done."
The nine members of the Court of the Judiciary handed out the harshest penalty possible, saying Moore left them with no choice by repeatedly insisting he would never obey a federal judge's order to move the 2 1/2-ton block of granite from the courthouse rotunda.
"Anything short of removal would only serve to set up another confrontation that would ultimately bring us back to where we are today," the panel said.
Moore spent eight months designing the monument and helped move it into the building in the middle of the night in 2001. He soon became a lightning rod for criticism from civil-liberties activists who said the stone tablets promoted religion in violation of the separation of church and state.
A federal judge ordered the monument removed, and it was finally wheeled away Aug. 27 to a storage room on instructions from Moore's eight fellow justices.
The Court of the Judiciary -- a panel of judges, lawyers and others appointed variously by judges, legal leaders and the governor and lieutenant governor -- began hearing testimony Wednesday on Moore's defiance and issued its ruling Thursday. The panel could have continued the suspension or reprimanded Moore.
"The chief justice placed himself above the law," said Presiding Judge William Thompson.
Moore, 56, had been suspended since August but was allowed to collect his $170,000 annual salary.
Moore said he had consulted with his lawyers and with political and religious leaders and would make an announcement next week that could "alter the course of this country." He did not elaborate.
He could appeal to the Alabama Supreme Court. If his removal stands, Gov. Bob Riley will appoint a new chief justice to finish his term, which expires in 2006. Moore could still run for re-election next year, provided he is not disbarred.
The governor issued a statement saying he was "disappointed and concerned that the federal courts continue to attempt to remove references to God and faith from public arenas. All of us must, however, respect the workings of our legal system and trust that it remains the best in the world."
Richard Cohen, president of the Southern Poverty Law Center, one of the three groups that sued Moore over the monument, said the court and the Alabama attorney general, who prosecuted the case, were courageous.
"They stood up to a popular political figure and said no one is above the law. We intend now to file a complaint with the Alabama State Bar Association asking that Moore be disbarred," Cohen said.
Greg Sealy, head of the Sitting at His Feet Fellowship in Montgomery, an inner-city mission, said it was the "darkest day" he has seen in America since he moved to the United States from Barbados 23 years ago.
"They stole my vote. The judiciary stole my vote. I voted for Roy Moore," he said.
Moore said he had no animosity toward the panel. But, he said, unless the states stand up, "public acknowledgment of God will be taken from us. 'In God we trust' will be taken from our money and 'one nation under God' from our pledge."
It was as a circuit court judge in the 1990s that Moore became known as the "Ten Commandments Judge," after he was sued by the American Civil Liberties Union for opening court sessions with prayer and for displaying a hand carved Ten Commandments display behind his bench.
He said Wednesday that when he ran for chief justice in 2000, his entire campaign was based on "restoring the moral foundation of law."