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House bills promote religion at war memorials

The House on Tuesday passed two bills endorsing the use of religious symbols at military memorials. One writes into law the propriety of displaying religious markers at war memorials while the other orders that the Interior Department add to the World War II Memorial in Washington a plaque with Franklin Roosevelt's prayer to the nation on D-Day.

The first bill would codify the existing practice of allowing religious symbols at military monuments established or acquired by the federal government. It was introduced by San Diego Republican Rep. Duncan Hunter in response to a 9th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals ruling a year ago that a cross placed on Mount Soledad in nearby La Jolla, Calif., in 1913 was unconstitutional.

The bill, Hunter said, "ensures that Mount Soledad and any other war memorial will withstand these attacks by allowing the inclusion of all symbols of religion and personal faith on war memorials established and under the control of the federal government." The 43-foot cross, which became a memorial to Korean War veterans and now honors all veterans, has been the center of legal challenges for more than two decades. In 2006, Congress passed a law transferring the property to the Defense Department.

The second bill would install at the World War II Memorial on the Mall a plaque or inscription with Roosevelt's prayer on June 6, 1944, when Allied forces invaded Normandy. It passed 386-26.

The prayer begins: "With Thy blessing, we shall prevail over the unholy forces of our enemy. Help us to conquer the apostles of greed and racial arrogances."

Bureau of Land Management Director Robert Abbey, in congressional testimony last November, said that while the administration did not judge the merit of the new commemoration, it could not support it. He said it was contrary to law that bars adding new commemorative work that encroaches on an existing one.

The addition, he said, "will necessarily dilute this elegant memorial's central message and its ability to clearly convey that message to move, educate and inspire its many visitors."

Rep. Bill Johnson, R-Ohio, the bill's sponsor, said he didn't see "how a nondenominational prayer that gave solace and comfort and strength to our nation during one of the most pivotal days of World War II and one of the most memorable days in our nation's history, would dilute the central message of the memorial."

The bills now go to the Senate.

Barry W. Lynn, executive director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State, urged the Senate to ignore the bills, saying those who give their lives for the country should be honored "by respecting America's great tradition of religious diversity, not by allowing Congress to hijack the language and symbols of one faith and impose them on all."

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