House narrowly rejects resolution urging Americans to recognize God

Wednesday, June 30, 1999

Besides claiming that the Ten Commandments can be posted in all public buildings, Congress considered a resolution urging government officials nationwide to encourage citizens to pray and fast in recognition of God.

The resolution introduced last month by Rep. Helen Chenoweth, R-Idaho, was narrowly defeated on the House floor yesterday. The House voted 275-140 for the resolution, falling nine votes shy of the required two-thirds majority.

Kyle Key, Chenoweth's communications director, said the vote was not a defeat and that the resolution was not dead.

“We are working with the leadership right now to get it re-introduced — this is not over yet,” Key said. “We were very encouraged by the votes we garnered yesterday. 275 members agreed that we do need healing in this nation, and I think that is significant.”

Chenoweth's resolution states, in part, “Congress recognizes the unique opportunity that the dawn of a millennium presents to a people in a Nation under God to humble and reconcile themselves with God and with one another,” and “urges all Americans to unite in seeking the face of God through humble prayer and fasting, persistently asking God to send spiritual strength and a renewed sense of humility to the Nation so that hate and indifference may be replaced with love and compassion, and so that the suffering in the Nation and the world may be healed by the hand of God.”

Finally, the resolution states that Congress “recommends that the leaders in national, State, and local governments, in business, and in the clergy appoint, and call the people they serve to observe, a day of solemn prayer, fasting, and humiliation before God.”

The resolution had more than 40 co-sponsors, including Majority Leader Dick Armey, R-Texas, Majority Whip Tom DeLay, R-Texas, and Rep. Robert Aderholt, R-Ala. Aderholt introduced the amendment to the juvenile-justice bill that said the Ten Commandments could be posted in public buildings with no constitutional concerns.

Key said he hoped Armey would help get the resolution re-introduced before the House.

Since the high school shooting in Littleton, Colo., Christian activists such as Aderholt and DeLay have called on their colleagues to pass religion-based acts. During the floor debate on the Ten Commandments, Aderholt said he realized “that simply posting the Ten Commandments will not change the moral character of our nation overnight,” but that it was “one step that the states can take to promote morality and work toward an end of children killing children.” Also, late last week the House Judiciary Committee voted for a religious-protection bill that would make it easier for religious persons to be exempted from laws that would impinge on their religious beliefs.

In late May, the Senate overwhelmingly amended its juvenile-justice bill to declare that the “saying of a prayer, the reading of a scripture, or the performance of religious music, as part of a memorial service” on public school grounds did not violate the First Amendment's separation of church and state.

Pat Robertson, televangelist and founder of the Christian Coalition, has lauded Congress' votes as victories “for people of faith.”

Janet Parshall, national advocate for a Protestant group, the Family Research Council, lauded the House vote on the Ten Commandments as “a good step towards healing the brokenness of the human heart that is so pervasive among our youth today.”

The preamble of Chenoweth's resolution states that it is the duty of Americans to pray to “Almighty God” and to “confess our shortcomings.” Furthermore, the preamble states that it is “incumbent on all public bodies, as well as private persons, to revere and rely on God Almighty for our day-to-day existence.”

Though the resolution might have pleased Christian activists, it has riled civil libertarians who argue that Congress' recent votes have blatantly ignored the establishment clause and Supreme Court decisions that have prohibited government-sponsored prayer in the public schools. Moreover, in 1980 the high court ruled the Ten Commandments were sectarian documents that could not be displayed on public school property without running afoul of the establishment clause.

Steve Benen, a spokesman for Americans United for Church and State, referred to Chenoweth's resolution as full of “pious platitudes.”

Benen said that although Chenoweth's resolution would not have carried the force of law it should have nonetheless concerned all who care for the First Amendment.

“This is yet another overall and concentrated effort by the religious right to undermine the First Amendment and especially the church-state provisions that guarantee our religious freedom,” Benen said. “What the religious right and its supporters in Congress fail to understand is that government-sponsored religion has never stopped a single crime, saved a single soul or healed a human heart. If religion is to be meaningful, it must be cultivated voluntarily in the hearts and minds of believers.”

After yesterday's vote Benen said he was discouraged “to see so many members of Congress believe it necessary to tell Americans when and how to pray,” and that “in no time this resolution will be considered again.”

Key, however, said he thought the resolution had been misunderstood by its opponents. “This is a nonbinding resolution and does not mandate anything – it simply calls on all people of faith to come together to pray for the healing that needs to occur to get our nation back to our foundation.”