WASHINGTON — When a spiffy, $621-million visitors center opened at the U.S. Capitol last year, a number of lawmakers were taken aback by what they didn't see: the words "In God We Trust."
Doing what members of Congress do when they're upset, Rep. Dan Lungren (R-Gold River) introduced legislation to get the words, along with the Pledge of Allegiance, etched into the walls of the complex.
But the effort has drawn a legal challenge from the Freedom From Religion Foundation, which asserts that such an action would amount to a government endorsement of religion -- in violation of the Constitution. The Wisconsin-based group describes itself as a national organization of atheists and agnostics.
Rep. J. Randy Forbes (R-Va.), founder of the Congressional Prayer Caucus, condemned the lawsuit as an effort to "silence our nation's history."
"I'm never surprised anymore by any lawsuit," said Lungren, a former California attorney general. "I will say that I was surprised that they would suggest that the national motto or the Pledge of Allegiance is unconstitutional. . . . I think the historical significance is well established."
It is the latest row over the place of God in federal government.
In 2002, Congress passed and President George W. Bush signed into law a bill reaffirming references to God in the pledge and the motto after the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals found the pledge's "under God" phrase to be in violation of the constitutionally mandated separation of church and state.
And in 2007, the architect of the Capitol caused a furor when he balked at a teen's request for a certificate noting his grandfather's "love of God, country and family" to accompany a souvenir flag that had flown over the building.
Even before the visitors center was finished, lawmakers raised objections to the omission of "In God We Trust," noting in a letter to the architect of the Capitol: "None of us should want to construct a $621-million shrine to political correctness that does not accurately reflect a significant part of American history."
Rep. Jo Bonner (R-Ala.) complained that a replica of the House chamber in the visitors center omitted the motto, even though "In God We Trust" is inscribed above the speaker's rostrum in the real chamber. The words were added to the replica, but a number of lawmakers said they should appear more prominently elsewhere in the center.
Lungren introduced a resolution to make that happen, and all but 10 House members supported it.
Rep. Michael M. Honda (D-San Jose), one of eight lawmakers who voted no (two others voted "present"), said: "To preference, on federal property, the words of one religion over another subtly serves to undermine our great nation's religious freedom and diversity and contravene our Constitution's principle of separation of church and state."
Also voting no was Rep. Pete Stark (D-Fremont), who has said that he does not believe in a supreme being. "As our nation's founders did, I support separation of church and state," he said.
The addition of the words to the visitors center could cost as much as $100,000.