God makes appearances on the dollar bill, is etched into the walls of Congress and shows up in the Pledge of Allegiance — but apparently has no business accompanying the American flags flown over the Capitol.
Members of Congress criticized, lectured and called for the replacement of acting Architect of the Capitol Stephen Ayers last week, after Ayers cut the word “God” out of a certificate that accompanied one such flag. He removed it in compliance with a long-standing guideline, distributed to Members every session, that prohibits any “religious or political expression” from flag certificates.
“Members of Congress should have broad latitude on what we’re able to put on certificates because we’re the ones requesting it,” said Rep. Mike Conaway (R-Texas), adding that it also can’t be a free-for-all. “There should be some common decency. I shouldn’t be putting profanities on it or anything like that.”
Rep. Mike Turner (R-Ohio) led the overwhelmingly Republican charge against the policy after Ayers altered the message on a certificate for one of his constituents. Such certificates are released often, allowing constituents and Members to put a purpose and message to flags flown over the Capitol. In Turner’s case, he requested a certificate for Andrew Larochelle, a 17-year-old who hoped to present the certificate and flag to his grandfather at an Eagle Scout ceremony. The message was straightforward: “This flag was flown in honor of Marcel Larochelle, my grandfather, for his dedication and love of God, Country, and family.”
But Ayers approved the document only after removing the word “God,” sparking a flurry of floor speeches and press releases condemning the decision.
Rep. Dan Burton (R-Ind.) called for Ayers’ resignation on the House floor. Conaway sent the Architect his own deity-infused certificate, just to show that the removal of “God” was standard policy. Several other Republicans released scathing press releases. And more than 130 Members, apparently all Republicans, signed a certificate asking Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) to reverse the policy.
“I find it disturbing that the custodian of the United States Capitol would make such a decision,” Rep. Randy Neugebauer (R-Texas) said in a statement. “The word ‘God’ is inscribed on the walls in both Chambers of Congress in this historic building. We begin each day in the House of Representatives with a prayer. There is no reason that certificates accompanying flags flown over the Capitol should not also be permitted to acknowledge God.”
So far, the Architect has kept silent, turning the issue over to the House Administration Committee. That panel already is discussing how to solve a problem that has come up several times over the years, said Kyle Anderson, spokesman for Chairman Robert Brady (D-Pa.). The rule was established by the AOC in 2003 and can be changed by the office under the supervision of the House Administration Committee and the Senate Rules and Administration Committee, he said.
“There’s discussion about the relevance of the rule and discussion around creating some sort of compromise to allow more say in the message coming out,” he said.
Members such as Turner want the rule thrown out altogether. He sees it as a step toward removing “God” from the Capitol and perhaps from society as a whole.
“We’re currently in a national battle to maintain the words ‘under God’ in the Pledge of Allegiance,” Turner said. “It’s ironic that while the nation is in that battle, the Architect would unilaterally determine” to remove the word from flag certificates.
The response is something Andrew Larochelle and his father, Paul, never expected. Andrew is a longtime Boy Scout, pianist and football player with a penchant for flags (his father says he sometimes lays flags on servicemen’s graves). In his most recent public service project, the younger Larochelle raised $5,800 to buy teddy bears for the children of deployed soldiers.
The Eagle Scout ceremony last week was a culmination of 11 years of such service. It seemed like the perfect place for Andrew to honor his grandfather, an Army veteran and devout Catholic, with a flag that symbolized his beliefs. But taking God out of the picture somewhat distorted a personal message from one family member to another, Paul Larochelle said.
“I certainly respect the separation of church and state and for good reason, but I don’t think this is what our forefathers intended,” he said, adding that the certificates don’t represent the beliefs of Congress or the government. “If you allow this ruling to stand, in my opinion, it’s a very slow chipping away of religious beliefs in this country that will lead to other sanctions.”
Because of the wording change, Turner wrote up a new flag certificate, uncertified by the Architect, that included Andrew Larochelle’s entire message. It was that certificate the 17-year-old presented to his grandfather Sept. 30.
“When he received this on Sunday, he was very emotional about it and very grateful to receive it,” Larochelle said. “Anything short of the original message just would have detracted so much from my father’s perspective.”
Along with issuing the certificate to the Larochelles, Turner decided to take the issue further. He confronted Ayers, who told him the rule was written after a Member complained that a flag certificate was inappropriate, according to Turner. But Turner argues that the thousands of certificates he and other Members request are hardly ever seen by anyone other than the recipient. Ayers should take the initiative and strike down the rule, he said.
“The word ‘under God’ in no circumstances should be deemed offensive or objectionable,” he said. “It’s inscribed over the Speaker’s chair.”