In God We Trust? Not Us, Says Foundation’s Federal Lawsuit

U.S. Capitol Visitor Center Carvings Contested

A Freedom From Religion Foundation lawsuit to protect the rights of nontheists and 13,700 Foundation members nationwide has predictably angered the usual suspects.

But it’s also resulted in a flood of publicity for the Foundation, with a substantial number of new memberships, membership inquiries and donations to pursue the legal case.

The suit, filed July 14 in U.S. District Court in Madison, Wis., seeks to stop the prominent engraving of “In God We Trust” and the religious Pledge of Allegi?ance at the Capitol Visitor Cen?ter in Washington, D.C. The House and Senate overwhelmingly approved a resolution in July to compel the Office of the Architect of the U.S. Capitol to prominently engrave the religious mottos at a cost of about $100,000.

The resolution passed in the Senate by voice vote and in the House by 410-8. The eight were Reps. John Conyers, D-Mich.; Donna Edwards, D-Md.; Mazie Hirono, D-Hawaii; Michael Honda, D-Calif.; James McDermott, D-Wash.; Ron Paul, R-Texas; Robert Scott, D-Va.; and Fortney “Pete” Stark, D.-Calif.

Construction of the Visitor Center started in 2002. It opened last Decem?ber and by May 14 had its one-millionth visitor. All visitors to the U.S. Capitol must enter through the Visitor Center, which is about three-fourths the size of the Capitol and cost $621 million.

The suit names Stephen Ayers, acting architect of the Capitol, as defendant. (He’s been “acting” since February 2007 when Alan Hantman retired.)

The Foundation’s Complaint says “‘In God We Trust’ excludes and treats as outsiders the millions of adult Americans, including as many as 15% of all adults, who are not religious, i.e., atheists, agnostics, skeptics and freethinkers, none of whom possesses a belief in a god; the mandated language diminishes nonbelievers by making god-belief synonymous with citizenship.”

The issue has fired up the Religious Right for some time, including the accusation that the building is a “$600 million Godless pit.” Rep. J. Randy Forbes, R-Va., fanned the flames by getting 108 members of Congress to sign a letter in 2008 to Ayers complaining about the lack of references to God and religion at the Visitor Center. Forbes is founder and chairman of the Congressional Prayer Caucus.

Sen. Jim DeMint, R-S.C., Senate sponsor of the resolution, had threatened to hold up the center’s opening because he said the building failed to recognize the purportedly integral role of religion in the federal government. DeMint said the cost of the mandated engraving would correct the alleged historical whitewash of the original design, welcome God back into the Center and highlight the “all-important relationship between faith and freedom in America.”

Rep. Steve King, R-Iowa, claimed that without the engravings of “In God We Trust” and the Pledge of Allegi?ance, 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., House sponsor (160 more signed on) of the resolution, told McClatchy News?papers that “In God We Trust” has a long history and that inclusion of religious references is more about history than religion. “We’re trying to enshrine history in the Capitol Visitor Center.”

To which Dan Barker, Foundation co-president, answered, “It’s not the job of our government and our government buildings to do that. Historians can point out that many of our founders were indeed religious. But saying ‘In God We Trust’ in the Visitors Center of the Capitol is not just some historical reference. It’s actually government speaking for all of us Americans.”

The Foundation Complaint says the congressional appropriations “will give actual and apparent government en?dor?se?ment and advancement of religion,” while excluding nonreligious Americans.

In addition, says the Complaint:

“In God We Trust” has no secular purpose; the phrase was adopted precisely to emphasize and endorse a supposed link between the United States federal government and Christian religious belief.

The effect of “In God We Trust” is primarily and directly to endorse and promote religion, which endorsement would be unmistakably perceived by a reasonable observer familiar with the history and context of the phrase.

“In God We Trust” is intended to and does convey the message that the United States supposedly is a Christian nation.

Only in 1954 did Congress first add the words “under God” to the previously secular pledge. “In God We Trust” was belatedly adopted by Congress as a national motto only in 1956. The original, secular motto, “E Pluribus Unum,” was chosen by a committee made up of Thomas Jefferson, John Adams and Benjamin Franklin.

Right-wing “Godless pit” claims appear to be addressed on the Visitor Center’s Web site, which includes this “frequently asked question”:

Does our national motto, “In God We Trust,” appear in the Capitol Visitor Center? What about other religious references?

“Yes, our national motto does appear in the Capitol Visitor Center in the House Theater exhibit. References to religion and faith are included in the context of several historic exhibits, and several religious items appear in the displays.

“Some examples include Article 3 of the Northwest Ordinance in its entirety; a copy of the Pledge of Allegiance and the prayer said at the opening of the current Congress; a copy of the Bible used to administer the oath of office to Senators until 1882; portraits of the first House and Senate chaplains; information about religious services regularly held in the Capitol in the 1800s, and an unaltered display of the U.S. Constitution highlighting the First Amendment which established our country’s right to the freedom of religion.”

That didn’t assu?age former House Speaker Newt Ging?rich, who has an online petition at to help “ensure that the new Capitol Visitor Center is historically correct and accurately reflects the centrality of ‘our Creator’ in the found?ing of America and in its historic development.”

Annie Laurie Gaylor, Foundation co-president, is a stickler for accuracy: “As we always say, ‘In God We Trust’ isn’t even accurate. To be accurate it would have to say, ‘In God Some of Us Trust.’

“Congress hasn’t caught up to the changing demographics in our country–with 15% or more of the population defining itself as nonreligious, that’s a lot of constituents to exclude/alienate.”

–Bill Dunn

Freedom From Religion Foundation