`God' OK on papers with Capitol flags

October 12, 2007|By Johanna Neuman | Johanna Neuman,LOS ANGELES TIMES

WASHINGTON -- The acting architect of the U.S. Capitol cleared the way yesterday for the certificates that accompany flags flown over the building to include the word "God," reversing policy on an issue that was becoming the latest touchstone in the nation's culture wars.

"When one of our services or policies doesn't effectively serve members of Congress or the American public, it needs to be changed immediately," architect Stephen T. Ayers said in a statement. "I appreciate the Congress bringing this important issue to my attention."

The latest controversy over the separation of church and state began in August, when 17-year-old Andrew Larochelle of Dayton, Ohio, wrote to his congressman asking that a flag be flown over the Capitol to honor his grandfather for his "love of God, country and family."

Ayers declined to provide the religious dedication, citing rules issued by his office that include this stipulation: "Personalized dedications are permitted but ... political and/or religious expressions are not permitted on the flag certificate." The architect of the Capitol is responsible for the maintenance and preservation of the Capitol complex, and that includes flying hundreds of Stars and Stripes on three flagpoles each day.

After consulting with congressional committees, Ayers changed the rule to read, "Personalized dedications are permitted but limited to three hundred (300) characters." In a news release, he said the rule has existed for four years and the practice of not allowing religious or political expressions "dates back to the 1970s, although not in writing."

Rep. Michael R. Turner, an Ohio Republican who led a campaign urging House Speaker Nancy Pelosi to overturn the decision, welcomed the reversal.

"We won a great victory for American traditions, religious freedoms and freedom of expression," Turner said in a statement. Praising the Larochelle family for its willingness "to challenge the architect's decision," Turner said the policy revision means that references to God enshrined throughout the Capitol are protected.

Pelosi earlier had defended Ayers for upholding the rules, noting that Congress was not against religious expression, beginning each day's session with a prayer. Yesterday, she said she agreed with the architect's decision: "I don't think that the architect's office should be in the role of censoring what members want to say."

Johanna Neuman writes for the Los Angeles Times.

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