MONTGOMERY, Ala. (AP) — Roy Moore, a firebrand jurist who is close to snagging the state's Republican nomination for U.S. Senate in Alabama, once called homosexuality an "inherent evil" and referred to ethnic groups as "reds" and "yellows" in a speech lamenting racial and political divisions in the country.
Twice ousted from the bench, the U.S. Senate contender has a history of provocative comments that have simultaneously made him a lightning rod for controversy and propelled his popularity in the conservative Deep South state. While he is disliked among members of the Republican establishment, his penchant for shooting from the hip appeals to many voters who are drawn to his plain-spokenness and authenticity.
Moore is on the eve of what could be a triumphant political resurrection: His strong showing in a party primary earlier this year forced Sen. Luther Strange into a heated Sept. 26 runoff for the Republican nomination for the U.S. Senate seat previously occupied by Attorney General Jeff Sessions. The winner will become the favorite against Democrat Doug Jones.
Not surprisingly, his increased public exposure as a candidate has led to a more intense scrutiny of his words. In a speech last week about divisions in the country, Moore employed words that in contemporary society are considered ethnic slurs. Saying the nation is as divided now as it was during the Civil War, he remarked, "We've got blacks and whites fighting, reds and yellows fighting, Democrats and Republicans fighting, men and women fighting."
Asked later about the comments, Moore's campaign responded with a quotation from the Bible song "Jesus Loves the Little Children," which refers to children by color. "'Red, yellow, black and white they are precious in His sight. Jesus loves the little children of the world.' This is the Gospel. If we take it seriously, America can once again be united as one nation under God." Moore's campaign posted the same response on Twitter.
In a 2002 child-custody case involving a lesbian mother, Moore wrote that homosexuality is "an inherent evil against which children must be protected." The Alabama Supreme Court ruled in favor of the father, and Moore authored a concurring opinion saying there was a presumption the mother was unfit because she was in a relationship with a woman.
Dawn Larson, the mother in the case, said Moore's actions were painful, but that she gets satisfaction knowing her case has been used as a rallying point against him over the years.
"It absolutely boggles my mind how the citizens of Alabama can keep re-electing someone who is so blatantly biased, has no understanding of separation of church and state, and who has proven over and over that he is simply unfit for the job. I don't have to believe the way Moore does, but I will defend his right to worship as he chooses. I just wish he offered every other American the same option," Larson told The Associated Press by email.
Asked about the case, Moore told the AP his opinion supporting the court decision was based on state laws against sodomy and gay marriage.
While his campaign platform focuses on a variety of issues, such as the repeal of President Barack Obama's health care overhaul and increased military spending, his signature issue through the years has always been the "acknowledgement of God." Moore's stump speeches, like his political career, often mingle politics, law and religion.
In a February speech, he appeared to suggest that the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks were a result of the country straying from religious roots. He quoted an Old Testament verse about the "breaking cometh suddenly at an instance" for those that have despised the word of God. "Sounds a little bit like the Pentagon, whose breaking came suddenly at an instance, doesn't it?"
Moore told the AP that the section of the speech was about how the country needed God's protection.
In a campaign speech Saturday, Moore complained that political operatives supporting Strange are showing up at all of his speeches with video cameras, hoping to catch him in a misstep or twist his words with editing.
Moore, a West Point graduate, was a little-known country judge when a decision to decorate his courtroom with a homemade wooden copy of the Ten Commandments set him on the path to fame. The American Civil Liberties Union sued over the display, and his habit of opening court sessions with Christian prayer.
The notoriety helped propel Moore — twice— to the office of chief justice. A judicial panel removed him from the post in 2003 when he disobeyed a court order to move a Ten Commandments monument out of the state Supreme Court building. Despite the controversy, he was re-elected in 2012, although last year, the panel suspended him for the remainder of his term after he wrote a memo telling probate judges they remained under a court order to refuse marriage licenses to gay couples.
National Republican groups, at the urging of Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, are spending millions on behalf of Strange. That's partly out of the routine practice of protecting incumbents; Strange was appointed to the seat by then-Gov. Robert Bentley after Sessions' promotion to the Justice Department, and Strange has proven a reliable vote for McConnell and President Donald Trump. But there's also the quiet fear that Moore is a weaker general-election candidate than Strange and would be a more unpredictable senator.
Wayne Flynt, a historian who has written books about Alabama history, said voters view Moore as "authentic" because he seems to truly believe what he says. Flynt said Moore appeals to voters who are tired of the establishment candidates on both sides of the aisle.
"How can he be a serious candidate for Senate? I can guarantee you among the Republican establishment, he's not. They are terrified of Roy Moore," Flynt said. "And I really think he has a very good chance of winning."