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Freethought Today · Vol. 27 No. 8 October 2010

Published by the Freedom From Religion Foundation, Inc.

Court dismisses Visitor Center suit on taxpayer standing

Capitol fight: FFRF will ‘soldier on’

FFRF will “soldier on” in challenging the religiously motivated engraving of “In God We Trust” and the religious Pledge of Allegiance at the Capitol Visitor Center in Washington, D.C., the Freedom From Religion Foundation announced.

FFRF’s federal lawsuit, filed in July 2009, was dismissed Sept. 20 for lack of standing by newly appointed U.S. District Judge William M. Conley of the Western District of Wisconsin.

The U.S. House and Senate passed resolutions ordering the architect of the Capitol to engrave “In God We Trust” and the Pledge of Allegiance prominently at the Capitol Visitor Center. The center now serves as the sole point of entry to the seat of American government. Visitors must pass through it to get into the Capitol.

The resolution passed after religious-right lobbying in a crusade also widely promoted by Newt Gingrich, and after expressly religious purposes were stated by sponsors.

Sen. Jim DeMint, R-S.C., the Senate sponsor, had threatened to hold up the opening of the center in December 2008, complaining it shortchanged the importance of religion in federal government.

Rep. Steve King, R-Iowa, claimed that without the engravings, the Visitor Center would reflect an effort “to scrub references to America’s Christian heritage” and to eradicate “the role of Christianity in America.”

Rep. Dan Lungren, R-Calif., sponsored the resolution in the House for the express purpose of emphasizing the role of religion in the U.S. government.

The judge dismissed the taxpayer standing of individual plaintiffs Dan Barker and Annie Laurie Gaylor, FFRF co-presidents, claiming there was no clear “nexus” showing Congress had specifically authorized money for the engravings. Yet the Senate approved the resolution on July 6, 2009, as part of an express appropriation bill.

Gaylor said courts are carrying to extremes the requirement that a specific congressional appropriation be passed to fund unconstitutional actions it mandates or approves. “Congress authorized the religious engravings and controls the purse strings for the Capitol architect who had to pay for the engravings. How can that not show a ‘nexus’?”

The Foundation contended that the stated purpose of the resolution “is intended to and does give the appearance of linking the legislative process to the purported religious beliefs of the members of Congress,” such as Rep. King’s statement in urging passage of the directive that “our Judeo-Christian heritage is an essential foundation stone” of the U.S. government.

The legal complaint noted that the engravings “exclude and treat as outsiders millions of adult Americans who do not believe in a god,” and “the mandated language diminishes non-believers by making god-belief synonymous with citizenship.”

FFRF is considering its options, including refiling the case on grounds other than taxpayer standing.

FFRF, Gaylor and Barker had sued Stephen Ayers, acting architect of the Capitol. They sought a judgment declaring the congressional directive violated the Establishment Clause and an order enjoining the prominent engraving, which has since taken place and cost an estimated $100,000 to $150,000.

The reaction of theocrats was predictable, and adds evidence to FFRF’s charges of a religious purpose for the engraving. Rep. Gregg Harper, R-Miss., said: “Numerous sources point to our founders’ collective reliance on God for direction and wisdom as they drafted the United States Constitution.”

“The religious right continually and dishonestly tries to insist that the founders prayed at the constitutional convention when they adopted our godless Constitution. They did not! Such disinformation must be aggressively challenged,” Barker said.

The American Center for Law and Justice, a Christian law firm founded by Rev. Pat Robertson, had filed a brief on behalf of dozens of members of Congress seeking rejection of the lawsuit.

Ironically, ACLJ’s chief counsel stated: “This challenge was another misguided attempt to alter history and purge America of religious references.”

Read the legal complaint and ruling

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