WASHINGTON — A California Republican congressman wants to do a little writing on the walls of Washington's newest federal building. If Rep. Dan Lungren gets his way, Congress will spend nearly $100,000 to engrave the words "In God We Trust" and the Pledge of Allegiance in prominent spots at the Capitol Visitor Center.
Lungren's proposal drew only a whimper of opposition last week when the House of Representatives voted 410-8 to approve it. Now, however, Lungren finds himself tussling with a national atheists and agnostics group.
The Wisconsin-based Freedom From Religion Foundation Inc. sued this week to stop the engraving, accusing Lungren of trying to force his religious beliefs on as many as 15 percent of all U.S. adults. That comprises "atheists, agnostics, skeptics and freethinkers, none of whom possess a belief in a god," according to the lawsuit.
"It really is a Judeo-Christian endorsement by our government, and so Lungren is wrong," said Dan Barker of Madison, Wis., a co-president of the foundation. "Lungren and others are pro-religious, and they want to actually use the machinery of government to promote their particular private religious views. That is unconstitutional, and that's what we're asking the court to decide."
The Senate has approved a similar plan introduced by Republican Sen. Jim DeMint of South Carolina. The congressional directive orders the Capitol architect to make the changes in the design of the $621 million center, which opened last December.
The Freedom From Religion Foundation, which has 13,500 members, sued in U.S. District Court in Wisconsin. It alleges that Congress is trying to make belief in God synonymous with citizenship and "discouraging nonbelief" among Americans, a contention that Lungren rejects.
Lungren said that the phrase "In God We Trust" had a long history and was consistent with the beliefs of America's founding fathers. He also said that the Declaration of Independence referred to rights given by a creator.
Lungren, a former California attorney general, said that while the proposed engravings incorporated religious references, they didn't violate the Constitution.
"What we're doing is making a specific historical reference to the beginnings of this republic," he said. "To ignore this or to forbid this statement or something like it to appear is to distort history. . . . We're not trying to change history. We're trying to enshrine history in the Capitol Visitor Center."
Barker said history was better left to others.
"It's not the job of our government and our government buildings to do that," he said. "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."
Barker said the foundation had been waiting for the right case to challenge "In God We Trust." He said government actions could be challenged on state-church grounds if they had specific religious agendas. In this case, he said, backers of Lungren's plan have provided "the smoking guns" by giving specific, overt religious reasons for doing the engraving.
Barker said that atheists regarded the phrase "In God We Trust" as rude, uncivil and un-American.
"Tens of millions of really good Americans don't believe in God," he said. "In fact, there's many more nonbelievers than there are Jews, and we wouldn't think of offending Jews on our national monuments. . . . Why is it wrong to offend a Jewish minority but it's not wrong to offend those of us who serve in the military and sit on juries but we don't believe in God?"
He said no hearing had been set.
Lungren is confident that a federal judge will allow the engraving to proceed.
"I never thought I'd see the day when someone would sue to stop us putting in the United States Capitol a statement of the national motto and the Pledge of Allegiance," he said. "Suggesting that the Pledge of Allegiance and the national motto is un-American in some way — talk about turning ideas on their heads."
MORE FROM MCCLATCHY
Follow the latest politics news at McClatchy's Planet Washington
McClatchy Newspapers 2009