The House yesterday failed to pass a constitutional amendment that backers say would correct three decades of anti-religious bias by the Supreme Court.
After hours of emotional debate, the House voted 224-203 in favor of the amendment, 61 votes short of the two-thirds majority needed to pass a constitutional amendment.
"The aggressive secularism now contained in our institutions was never intended by those who drafted or ratified our Constitution," said Rep. Henry J. Hyde, Illinois Republican and chairman of the House Judiciary Committee. "Our basic liberties are being infringed by judicial wrongheadedness and, frankly, secular bias."
Opponents of the amendment said they were motivated by a desire to protect religion from reckless changes to the Constitution, rather than hostility to religion.
"When you listen to this debate, you'd think that this was a vote for or against religion. Nothing could be further from the truth," said Rep. Jim McDermott, Washington Democrat. "Many of us are believers, but do not wear our beliefs on our sleeves."
The Religious Freedom Amendment would "secure the people's right to acknowledge God according to the dictates of conscience." Backers say the amendment would have clarified the meaning of the First Amendment, which forbids Congress to establish an official religion or inhibit the free exercise of faith.
Since 1962, the Supreme Court has limited the role of religion in public institutions, particularly organized prayer in school. Backers of the amendment say the court misinterprets the First Amendment and has refused to correct itself - meaning the Congress needs to step in to amend the Constitution.
"Jesus Christ is put in a bottle of urine, funded by tax dollars and called art, . . . but at the same time, there are some who want to do a manger scene in front of City Hall and they're told, `Oh no, separation of church and state,' " said Rep. Dana Rohrabacher, California Republican.
Although the amendment failed, the fact that it received a majority of votes was a symbolic victory for religious conservatives, who made it a high priority of their legislative agenda this year. The Christian Coalition, for example, spent $500,000 on radio advertising and mailings supporting the measure in swing congressional districts.
The vote is also a victory for Republican House leaders, whom religious conservatives have accused of presiding over a slowing of the momentum of the 1994 Republican "revolution." Some conservatives have even threatened to bolt the party unless they see action on key moral issues.
Yesterday's vote, the first House vote on a school-prayer-related constitutional amendment since 1971, may help secure the Republicans' religious-conservative base in this midterm election year. The Christian Coalition says it will include information on how individual House members voted in its traditional voter guides for the fall elections.
Many members expressed nervousness about the potential power of the Christian Coalition.
"I resent being accused of being nonreligious, of being nonspiritual ," said Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee, Texas Democrat. "It's a private issue, it's an issue we died for."
Rep. Chet Edwards, Texas Democrat and the leading opponent of the amendment, said the Christian Coalition sent a letter to his constituents decrying him as a bigot.
"I never thought I'd be accused of being un-American for standing with Jefferson and Madison in defense of that wonderful Bill of Rights," Mr. Edwards said.
Democrats led the charge against the amendment, arguing that it had more to do with conservative politics than religious liberty. They said religious conservatives are trying to use the power of public schools to dictate faith.
Supporters of the amendment think that families, "left to their own choice, will not inculcate enough religion into their children," said Rep. …