WASHINGTON — Less than two weeks after it approved a proposal to allow states to post the Ten Commandments in public places, the House on Tuesday turned back an effort to call for a national "day of solemn prayer, fasting and humiliation before God."
The prayer resolution achieved a solid majority, 275 to 140. But the proposal, pushed by House Republican leaders, was felled by a parliamentary hurdle, falling just short of the two-thirds majority it needed for passage.
As a result, advocates of separation of church and state--who had all but conceded the outcome beforehand--were handed an unexpected victory.
The resolution's sponsors were continuing a legislative effort to turn to religion as a salve for the nation's wounds in the wake of several deadly school shootings. Tuesday's vote was an aftershock of the tremors that shook the House earlier this month as it engaged in a fierce debate on juvenile justice, gun control and social values.
It was during this debate that the House approved, 248 to 180, the controversial Ten Commandments measure, which required only a simple majority for approval.
The resolution proposed Tuesday would have been nonbinding. The Ten Commandments measure still faces scrutiny from the Senate, the White House and--if it should become law--from a federal court system that has ruled similar legislation at the state level unconstitutional.
But the votes, taken together, show how the role of religion in public life remains a divisive question.
Advocates said that the bipartisan majorities for both measures demonstrate that the House is in tune with the sentiments of most Americans, who believe that the best answer to countering youth violence lies in rekindling faith.
Critics said that Christian conservatives were attempting to seize a politically opportune moment to weaken the nation's historic divide between religion and government.
And analysts said that the votes indicated Congress is still struggling to come up with an official response to horrific acts of violence, such as the attack that left 15 dead, including the two gunmen, on April 20 at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colo.
"This is fundamentally more of a matter of private values rather than law," said Francis Fukuyama, a public policy professor at George Mason University who has written a book on the disruption of moral values in America and other Western nations. "But being in the position of people who write the laws, [members of Congress] are kind of stuck, so this is what they end up doing."
The measure debated Tuesday came to the House floor without the scrutiny that most bills get from committees--the reason why a two-thirds majority was required. Its main sponsor, Rep. Helen Chenoweth (R-Idaho), said that she plans to reintroduce it under regular rules, perhaps as early as today. "This won't be the end of it," said a Chenoweth spokesman.
The measure recommended that the nation's government, business and religious leaders "call the people they serve to observe a day of solemn prayer, fasting and humiliation before God."
Chenoweth said that her resolution followed precedents established since the founding of the nation. "If there ever was a time when we need to pray, it is now," she said.
But Rep. Chet Edwards (D-Texas), while asserting his own devotion to Christianity, denounced the effort to force votes on prayer and the Ten Commandments. "Perhaps it is time for us in Congress to preach a little less and practice a little more," he said. "God doesn't need Congress' help. But may God help us if we ever use religion for our own political ends."
Virtually all California Republicans voted for the resolution. The exceptions were Brian P. Bilbray of San Diego, Tom Campbell of San Jose and Steven T. Kuykendall of Rancho Palos Verdes.
Virtually all California Democrats voted against the measure. The exceptions were Lois Capps of Santa Barbara, Gary A. Condit of Ceres and Grace F. Napolitano of Norwalk.
Reps. Randy "Duke" Cunningham (R-San Diego) and George E. Brown Jr. (D-San Bernardino) did not vote.