As if by providence, the days surrounding our nation's birthday almost always yield a public debate in which we're asked to consider what we mean in celebrating "life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness."

A remarkable thing happened on the floor of the House five days before the Fourth of July. A resolution recommending "a solemn day of prayer, fasting and humiliation before God" failed. It won a majority, but 140 members stood up to vote no, and that deprived the resolution of the two-thirds vote it needed because its sponsors tried to ram it through by suspending normal rules.

It takes courage to vote against a resolution in favor of prayer. But you sense that the public is tiring of Congress's substituting symbolic votes (the one about posting the Ten Commandments in classrooms comes to mind) for action on the problems of this world.

One of the worst aspects of God-centered political posturing is that it undermines the legitimate claims religious Americans have been making for decades. As The Rev. Richard John Neuhaus argues in his book, "The Naked Public Square," the proper concern for religious liberty often is transformed into a doctrine to "exclude religion and religiously grounded values from the conduct of public business."

At the extreme, this ideology holds that those who oppose abortion, the death penalty, assisted suicide or social injustice on religious grounds are illegitimately smuggling faith into the public debate.

The conservative editor Terry Eastland had it right when he argued some years ago that "the religious person is entitled, if not to prevail, at least to be heard," to "be allowed to have a voice in public policy" and to "expect that his religion will not disqualify him from speaking on political matters."

But fighting extreme forms of secularism to defend the rights of religious people is different from what Congress has been up to lately. Consider the language of the prayer resolution sponsored by Rep. Helen Chenoweth (R-Idaho). The measure declared 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, as well as to follow the charge to love and serve one another."

The resolution also said, "It is the necessary duty of the people of this nation not only to humbly offer up our prayers and needs to Almighty God, but also in a solemn and public manner to confess our shortcomings."

Pardon me, but where in the Constitution does Congress get the right to tell free American citizens what it is "incumbent" upon them to do or believe where God is concerned?

Many of these religious measures are being pushed hardest by the firmest foes of gun control, such as Chenoweth. The Columbine tragedy, she said, was "a spiritual event that should be forcing us to look at where the real blame lies." Fair enough.

She went on: "What has happened to us as a nation? Well, we have refused to honor God, and in doing so, we open the doors to hatred and violence. We do not need more restrictive laws." Now let's get this straight: We don't need more restrictive laws, presumably about guns, but it's okay for Congress to tell Americans what their religious duties are.

Was it miraculous that many spoke up against this posturing? "Speaking as a Christian, I believe deeply in the importance and power of prayer," said Rep. Chet Edwards (D-Tex.), but, "prayer is not a duty to be directed by this or any Congress. . . . I would suggest that we members of Congress should spend more time praying and less time trying to tell others how they should pray."

Rep. Ted Strickland (D-Ohio) cited the book of James: "What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if you say you have faith but do not have works?" He interpreted the passage this way: "I'd feel more positive about this resolution if, along with its call to prayer and fasting, we also committed ourselves to effective legislative action."

What a remarkable idea: Congress's duty is to pass sensible laws, not to tell us how or when to pray.