04/26/2017 12:18 EDT | Updated 04/26/2017 14:01 EDT

Suspended Alabama chief justice Moore declares US Senate bid

MONTGOMERY, Ala. — Suspended Alabama Chief Justice and gay marriage opponent Roy Moore announced Wednesday he is running for the U.S. Senate seat previously held by Attorney General Jeff Sessions.

The fiery Republican jurist, who was suspended from the bench on accusations that he urged defiance of the landmark U.S. Supreme Court decision allowing gays and lesbians to marry, made the announcement in a news conference on the steps of the Alabama Capitol.

Repeating familiar themes from his judicial and political career, Moore said the country is being gripped by immorality and damaged by judges and politicians who stray from a strict interpretation of the Constitution.

"My position has always been God first, family then country. I share the vision of President Donald Trump to make America great again," Moore said. "You know before we can make America great again, we have got to make America good again. The foundations of the fabric of our country are being shaken tremendously. Our families are being crippled by divorce and abortion. Our sacred institution of marriage has being destroyed by the Supreme Court." Moore said.

He was surrounded by about two dozen supporters who waved American flags, a Christian flag and signs from his past campaigns.

Moore, who has been suspended from the bench since September, said he has submitted retirement paperwork to step down as chief justice to seek the post.

He is joining what's expected to be a crowded GOP primary field in the Aug. 15 primary.

The U.S. Senate seat is currently held by former Alabama Attorney General Luther Strange. He was appointed by then-Gov. Robert Bentley who resigned this month amid fallout from an alleged affair with a top staffer. Bentley had planned to hold the Senate election in 2018, but the state's new governor, Kay Ivey, moved it up to this year, setting off what's expected to be a four-month demolition derby among Republicans, the dominating political party in the state.

Moore has twice won statewide elections for chief justice, and twice been removed from those duties by a judicial discipline panel. His other election bids have fallen flat. In 2010 he finished fourth in the Republican primary candidate for governor.

Moore was raised in the foothills of Appalachia in the northeast corner of Alabama, in a house that lacked indoor plumbing. He graduated from the U.S. Military Academy at West Point. In Vietnam, he was a member of the 188th Military Police Company, earning the nickname of Captain America because of his rigid adherence to military code. He first drew national attention as a circuit judge in the 1990s's after the American Civil Liberties Union challenged his practice of opening court with prayer and hanging a Ten Commandments sign in his circuit.

Moore has twice been taken off the bench for violating judicial ethics after taking stances that endeared him to some Christian conservatives but were seen by critics as evidence of his inability to comprehend a separation between church and state.

The Court of Judiciary, which disciplines judges, removed Moore as Alabama's chief justice in 2003 after he disobeyed a federal judge's order to remove a boulder-sized Ten Commandments monument that he installed in the rotunda of the state judicial building. He was re-elected as chief justice in 2012, a victory he called a vindication.

In a Jan. 6, 2016, memo to probate judges, Moore wrote that a 2015 Alabama Supreme Court order to refuse marriage licenses to gay couples remained in "full force and effect." His memo came six months after the highest court in the nation ruled that gays and lesbians have a fundamental right to marry.

The judiciary panel in September suspended Moore for the remainder of his term, saying he had violated judicial ethics by urging probate judges to refuse marriage licenses to gay couples.

Moore denied the charge of urging defiance, and said he was only giving a status update on the 2015 state order. However, he also called his ouster a politically motivated effort from "homosexual and transgender groups" because of his opposition to gay marriage.

Moore has been a divisive figure inside and outside of Alabama, enjoying a loyal following of supporters around the country but often butting heads with his party's establishment.

Richard Cohen is president of the Southern Poverty Law Center, which filed the complaints that led to Moore's removal. He has called Moore the "Ayatollah of Alabama," saying he's unable to separate his personal religious beliefs from his judicial responsibilities.

Moore's loyal supporters on Wednesday cheered his return to the political arena.

"Alabama will become 'Ground Zero' in the political and cultural war," Dean Young, a longtime Moore supporter, told The Associated Press ahead of the announcement.