American Indians smoked ceremonial pipes for thousands of years before Mormon pioneers first entered the Salt Lake Valley. In fact, the ceremonial pipe ritual is as sacred to the Utah's Shoshoni, Ute and others as the holy sacraments are to Christians.
But the powerful House Rules Committee voted 5-2 to deny public debate on a bill that would have allowed American Indians to smoke their ceremonial pipes in public places."I could not see the importance of the bill, and no one (in the committee) could tell us why it was important," said House Majority Whip Mike Waddoups, R-Bennion. "It would just become a grandstanding piece of legislation on the floor, and I can't support something like that."
Waddoups admitted the committee never did ask the sponsor why the bill was important. Nor did anyone ask an American Indian.
Of the five Rules Committee members who voted against the bill, all are white, all are Republican and all are Mormons. All five denied their votes were an expression of religious intolerance.
"My dad died of emphysema, and I'm opposed to smoking, religious or otherwise," said Rep. Jerry Adair, R-Roy, one of the five who voted against the bill. Reps. Kurt Oscarson, D-Sandy and a Mormon, and David Jones, D-Salt Lake and a non-Mormon, voted in favor of the bill.
The 1994 Legislature passed a law banning all kinds of smoking in virtually all buildings accessible to the public, except for taverns. That also means that American Indians can not smoke their ceremonial pipes in any public place.
Rep. Eli Anderson, D-Tre-mon-ton, said the intent of the Utah Indoor Clean Air Act was to protect public health, not to deny individuals the right to practice their traditional religions.
According to the provisions of this year's HB149, individuals would be exempt from the Utah Indoor Clean Air Act if they are a member of a recognized American Indian tribe who actively practices an American Indian religion, "the origin and interpretation of which is from a traditional American Indian culture."
The smoking of tobacco in traditional pipes must also be part of a religious ceremony, and the ceremony must be conducted by a "pipe carrier, Indian spiritual person or medicine person recognized by the tribe of which the person is a member and the Indian community."
But Rep. John Valentine, R-Orem, said the exemption in the bill is too broad and has too many loopholes.
"The way it is written, they (Native Americans) could go into public schools and conduct pipe ceremonies. And that bothers me," he said. "If it is a religious issue, does that mean they could smoke hashish or marijuana, too?"
Actually, no. Anderson's bill specifically allows the exemption only for tobacco. And Anderson said the bill was written narrowly to allow only recognized American Indian spiritual leaders to conduct the ceremony.
Carol Gnade of the Utah Chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union said there is a good likelihood that someone will claim Utah's total ban on smoking in public places violates the free exercise of religion.
"The test will then be: Is the state's interest in prohibiting smoking significantly compelling to override the Native Americans' right to religious exercise?" Gnade said, firing a warning shot toward Capitol Hill by adding the ACLU "is committed to protecting peoples' individual right to free exercise of religion."
Anderson's bill could yet receive a public hearing. "If it came up again, I'd vote for it," said Rep. Lee Ellertson, R-Orem. "After we think things through a little bit more, clearly we would do things differently."
Ellertson also had the candor to admit that religion probably did play a role in the Rules Committee action inasmuch as lawmakers simply had no perspective of American Indian religions or religious ceremonies. "I can't give you a good reason why we voted it down," he said.
Rep. Mont Evans, R-Riverton, voted against sending the bill out for a public hearing, saying "I couldn't see the importance of it." But he also added he wanted to look at it again.
To Valentine, Waddoups and Adair, however, the issue was clear-cut: no smoking in public buildings.
"It is not a religious issue," Valentine maintained. "And I feel strongly about it, and yes, I would go up against the ACLU on this one."