Religious Debate Roils Capitol Visitor Center

December 3, 2008

Author: James Rosen

Source: The Seattle Times

Protests by conservative lawmakers led architects to promise to add "In God We Trust" as the national motto and to engrave the Pledge of Allegiance in the new $621 million Capitol Visitor Center.

Sen. Jim DeMint, R-S.C., had threatened to delay Tuesday's opening of the marble-and-stone center that took seven years to build at triple the original cost.

But some last-minute fixes allowed hundreds of visitors to get their first look at the underground museum — and now the first stop for people touring the Capitol — as it opened three years late and $360 million over budget.

A 186-foot marble wall holds display cases that document the nation's milestones and key decisions in Congress. Visitors will find President Kennedy's 1961 speech calling for the nation to send a man to the moon, Thomas Jefferson's 1803 letter urging Congress to pay for the Lewis and Clark Expedition and James Madison's notes for the Constitution.

At a dedication ceremony for the center, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi praised the inclusive nature of the center's main space, called Emancipation Hall in part because slaves helped build the Capitol.

After taking a tour of the center in September with Steven Ayers, the architect who oversaw its completion, DeMint correctly noted that it had erroneously described "E. Pluribus Unum" — Latin for "from many, one" — as the national motto rather than "In God We Trust." Despite winning a months-long battle to highlight the importance of religion in U.S. life, DeMint was not satisfied Tuesday, saying the center still misrepresents American history by downplaying the faith of the founding fathers and other prominent figures. The center's "most prominent display proclaims faith not in God, but in government," he noted.