A tourist takes a photo while taking advantage of a temporary opening during a rally at the World War II Memorial on the National Mall Oct.15, 2013, in Washington, D.C.

God Gets a Place on the National Mall

Obama signed legislation permitting a prayer plaque to be erected on the World War II Memorial.

A tourist takes a photo while taking advantage of a temporary opening during a rally at the World War II Memorial on the National Mall Oct.15, 2013, in Washington, D.C.

The World War II Memorial Prayer Act allows for the installation of a prayer plaque at the Washington, D.C., landmark. 

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Was God purposely left off the National World War II Memorial?

That is a rumor that made the rounds on the Internet. As such, it became a “maliciously generated and widely distributed notion,” as the National Park Service put it, and led to legislation signed into law by President Barack Obama Monday.

Now God’s getting a place on the National Mall. A plaque with a prayer is to be installed near the monument – a move that’s not winning praise from groups who strongly support the separation of church and state.

So here’s what happened: The claim was mainly inspired by the fact that a chunk of Franklin D. Roosevelt’s speech to Congress after the bombing of Pearl Harbor was used on the memorial, but not the “God” part.

The quote used on the 10-year-old memorial was, “December 7, 1941, a date which will live in infamy … no matter how long it may take us to overcome this premeditated invasion, the American people, in their righteous might, will win through to absolute victory.”

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This part was chosen, according to the National Park Service in a memo addressing the “ World War II Memorial Inscription Controversy,” because that's when Congress cheered loudest. (The American Battle Monuments Commission actually listened to audio recording.) The God reference comes three paragraphs later. “Whenever one reads the entire speech, it becomes clear that the phrase ‘so help us God’ neither appears at the end of the speech nor remains omitted from the phrase that actually exists within the memorial,” the undated NPS memo reads.

But the NPS memo didn’t make the Godless-memorial-problem go away.

"People started emailing their members of Congress saying, 'This is ridiculous that we can't put God on this memorial.' Even though this wasn't the case at all," explained Kelly Damerow, director of federal and state government affairs at the Secular Coalition, a group fighting the project. "So they actively moved to make it happen.

Enter Sen. Rob Portman, R-Ohio, who sponsored legislation in the last Congress, and now this one, known as the “ World War II Memorial Prayer Act.” The bill directs the Secretary of the Interior to “install in the area of the World War II Memorial in the District of Columbia a suitable plaque or an inscription with the words that President Franklin D. Roosevelt prayed with the United States on D-Day, June 6, 1944.” Portman originally teamed up with then- Sen. Joe Lieberman, I-Conn. This time around he linked up with Sen. Mary Landrieu, D-La., who’s seeking re-election in a red-ish state.

On June 5, Landrieu and Portman recited the prayer together on the Senate floor in honor of the 70th anniversary of D-Day, the bill was then passed by unanimous consent. The House passed the piece of legislation later that month. And on Monday, Obama signed the bill.

Groups including the Ohio Christian Alliance and the Christian Coalition of America endorsed the legislation.

"President Roosevelt's prayer articulated the great crusade that was underway to liberate millions suffering under tyranny. He honored the war effort and paid tribute to the fallen and those veterans who fought courageously in the conflict. It is only fitting that succeeding generations learn of this prayer that was offered at that most poignant moment in our nation's history," Ohio Christian Alliance President Chris Long said in a statement after the Senate passed the bill.

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On the other hand, the Secular Coalition and the American Civil Liberties Union were not too pleased once the president offered his signature.

“We’re really disappointed that the president signed it into law,” said Heather Weaver, a senior staff attorney at the ACLU’s national religion program. “War memorials are meant to unite us in gratitude for veterans’ service, but we believe that adding the prayer is actually a divisive act that sends a strong message of exclusion to the many Americans and service members who don’t share these religious beliefs.”

Amanda K. Metskas, president of the Secular Coalition, said she wasn’t surprised the prayer plaque had bipartisan support. “You know, I think a lot of people across the political spectrum are very comfortable with privileging religion in our politics right now,” Metskas said.

Both groups and some like-minded allies are looking at their options on how to ultimately prevent the plaque.

The bill includes two caveats that may slow the progress down. First, the legislation makes clear that funding for the project must come from private donors, which haven’t been lined up yet, though a Portman aide told Whispers that a number of groups have expressed interest in financing the work. Additionally, the design and placement of the plaque must adhere to the Commemorative Works Act – meaning that it must be approved by organizations including the U.S. Commission of Fine Arts and the National Capital Planning Commission, the latter of which “pulled the plug” on the design for the much maligned Dwight D. Eisenhower Memorial in April. If that process is any indication, the prayer plaque could still be years away.