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A Godless Capitol center

When it comes to deities, lawmakers would do best to proceed with caution, respect and, as often as possible, silence.

July 25, 2009

Sometimes the culture wars are fun, raising all kinds of delectable issues for editorial writers to chew over, but other times we wish they'd just go away. That's the case with the most recent spat involving the new visitors center at the U.S. Capitol, which opened last year and has now become the latest battleground between the religion lobby and its enemies, the atheists.

The issue this time is not something that government has done but something it has failed to do. Apparently the word "God" is not visible enough in the visitors center. No "In God We Trust" etched on the building's walls and no Pledge of Allegiance either (with its magic words, "under God"). Some lawmakers are steamed about this oversight, and Rep. Dan Lungren (R-Gold River) introduced legislation to have both carved into the complex. Doing so could cost as much as $100,000.

Adhering to the principle that every action has an equal and opposite reaction, the story doesn't end there. The Freedom From Religion Foundation has gone to court, arguing that the words, if added, would amount to an unconstitutional government endorsement of religion.

This page has generally tried to take a reasonable, non-hysterical position on church-and-state issues. In 2006, we concluded that the towering cross on a city-owned hill in San Diego was "an extremely visible symbol of one religion" and was unacceptable. When an atheist challenged the words "under God" in the pledge, we agreed that state-mandated religious invocations don't belong in a secular, multicultural democracy. On the other hand, we argued last year that Colorado should be allowed to declare a "day of prayer" despite atheists' objections, and we agreed with the Supreme Court in February that just because Pleasant Grove City, Utah, displayed the Ten Commandments in a city park, it wasn't legally obliged to display the "Seven Aphorisms" of the Summum faith as well. We try to adhere to the notion that government should not sanction or endorse a particular religion, nor should it intrude on reasonable religious practice.

This is another case that calls for reasonableness rather than stridency. Although there is an understandable rationale for keeping phrases like "In God We Trust" in places where they've traditionally appeared -- on, say, pennies, nickels, dimes and quarters -- it hardly seems necessary to retrofit a government building at substantial cost merely to add words that might offend some people. At the same time, it's worth noting that the defenders of secularism sometimes seem to make an inordinate fuss over minor issues (such as this one) when there are more significant battles to be fought.

No matter how large or small the conflict, government should speak softly in matters of religion. In this case, Congress ought to leave well enough alone, because the less said about God on the walls of government buildings, the better.

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