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Judge Throws Out Suit Challenging Engravings in CVC

Updated: 12:40 p.m.

A federal judge in Wisconsin threw out a lawsuit brought by an atheist group that challenged the constitutionality of the “In God We Trust” and Pledge of Allegiance engravings in the Capitol Visitor Center.

U.S. District Judge William M. Conley dismissed the case, brought by the Freedom From Religion Foundation, because the concurrent resolutions directing the Architect of the Capitol to complete the engravings were not tied to a specific appropriation.

The U.S. District Court for the Western District of Wisconsin judge cited Supreme Court precedent in his ruling Thursday, noting that taxpayers can bring a suit alleging injury only if the injury is tied to a specific appropriation.

“Plaintiffs fail to establish standing because they cannot point to any specific Congressional appropriation for the allegedly unconstitutional concurrent resolution,” Conley wrote. “The ‘chasm’ between general Congressional appropriations and spending funds from those appropriations for an activity or program instituted by a government employee … is not bridged merely because the spending is done by a government employee at the behest of Congress.”

Conley also ruled that the case is pointless because the engravings were already completed, in September 2009. He declined, however, to rule on whether the engravings violate separation of church and state, instead challenging the plaintiff’s status to bring the case.

The Freedom From Religion Foundation, based in Madison, Wis., first brought the case in July 2009 after Congress passed a resolution sponsored by Rep. Dan Lungren (R-Calif.) and Sen. Jim DeMint (R-S.C) directing the AOC to engrave the national motto and pledge in the CVC.

“The Congressional directive to the defendant to prominently engrave ‘In God We Trust’ and the Pledge of Allegiance at the entrance to the Capitol Visitor Center, at taxpayer expense, violates the fundamental principle of the separation of church and state by using Congressional taxpayer appropriations, made pursuant to the Taxing and Spending provision of the Constitution, to support activities that endorse religion,” the group alleged in its complaint.

Annie Laurie Gaylor, the group’s co-president, said she plans to refile the case, maybe in the District of Columbia.

“Its dismaying, but I think there are ways around this,” she said in an interview. “The Architect has no money except what is appropriated him by Congress and Congress has told him what to do with the money.”

A lawyer from the prominent conservative group American Center for Law and Justice represented the defense. Jay Sekulow, the group’s chief counsel, said in a statement that the engravings mirror statements found in both the Constitution and Declaration of Independence and that they “reflect the historical fact that our nation was founded on a belief in God.”

“This challenge was another misguided attempt to alter history and purge America of religious references,” he said.

The group filed an amicus brief that was signed by 50 Republican Members of Congress, including DeMint, Sens. James Inhofe (Okla.) and Roger Wicker (Miss.), House Minority Leader John Boehner (Ohio), Whip Eric Cantor (Va.), Chief Deputy Whip Kevin McCarthy (Calif.), Conference Chairman Mike Pence (Ind.), Conference Vice Chairwoman Cathy McMorris Rodgers (Wash.), and Rep. Randy Forbes (Va.), the chairman of the House Prayer Caucus.

Lungren, who did not sign on to the brief, said in a statement: “Displaying the Pledge and our national motto is not an unconstitutional endorsement of religion; it is an appropriate, respectful acknowledgment of this nation’s rich history which we should honor and embrace – not edit in the name of political correctness.”

Eva Malecki, spokeswoman for the Architect of the Capitol, declined to comment.

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