Conservatives say their fight is just beginning for a constitutional amendment to allow school prayer and protect other public religious expression. A proposal under consideration in the House fell far short of the two-thirds majority needed for passage Thursday.
Utah's three House members, all Republicans, voted for the amendment.While congressmen debated the merits of the legislation, some Utah high school graduates gave impromptu prayers during annual spring commencement rites, despite Supreme Court bans.
Seniors at both Timpview and Orem high schools offered apparent spur-of-the-moment prayers during graduation ceremonies this year. Neither prayer was announced in the printed program.
Carol Lear, attorney for the state Office of Education, said such student-initiated prayers do not violate the U.S. Supreme Court ban on prayers at public school commencement exercises.
Utah is among those states that firmly support graduation prayers. A recent Deseret News poll showed that 77 percent of Utahns strongly agree or somewhat agree that prayers should be allowed during public high school graduations. Sixty-six percent of Utahns surveyed, however, doubt such an amendment will be approved of by Congress and ratified by the states.
Affairs in Washington seem to justify their doubts. The "Religious Freedom Constitutional Amendment" pushed by Rep. Ernest Istook, R-Okla., failed on a 224-203 vote, 61 short of the two-thirds margin needed for such amendments. Istook is a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
But Istook is not overly discouraged. He said amendments historically require four or five votes over years before eventual passage. Mere debate of the issue gives more protection for religious expression, which he feels is under attack by court decisions.
Istook said the amendment is needed because courts have eroded everything from students' ability to have prayer at graduations and sporting events to the ability to display the Ten Commandments in courtrooms or nativity scenes on public land.
Disagreeing was White House press secretary Mike McCurry. He said President Clinton opposes the amendment as unnecessary "because we have something precious called the First Amendment," which guarantees religious freedom.
"Look at the guns, the knives, the drugs, the teenage pregnancies in public schools, and you tell me that we don't need to make sure values are repeated every time we can?" Istook said.
Rep. Chris Cannon, R-Utah, said, "The federal courts have waged open war on virtually all forms of religious expression for the past 30 years. It is time to thoughtfully and carefully reverse that course."
Meanwhile, the debate sparked a political dart-throwing contest between Rep. Merrill Cook, R-Utah, who joined other Republicans in support of the amendment, and his Democratic opponent in the fall election, Lily Eskelsen. She opposes the amendment.
Cook in debate accused teacher unions (Eskelsen is a past president of the Utah Education Association) of pushing to remove all religious expression from schools. In a tit-for-tat exchange, Eskelsen contested his allegation and in turn implied Cook isn't doing enough to fight guns in schools, an accusation he contested.
"Teacher unions are decrying a return to conservative values, and in particular personal religious expression. They say those values and those religious expressions are a threat to public schools.
"Why? Because they're liberals, and they're out of touch with 80 percent of the people of my state, and indeed this country, who believe we should get violence out of our schools and get into our schools personal religious expression," he said.
Eskelsen responded that as a teacher she sees daily the need for stronger traditional values in society.
"I believe deeply in the First Amendment and the protection of a student's right to personal religious expression, and as a teacher know how important it is to students to make their personal religious beliefs a part of their own school experience," she said. The First Amendment adequately ensures freedom of religion, she said.