In the end, the tragedy in Littleton, Colo., gave a core of committed activists the momentum they needed to push legislation through the House that would never have stood a chance otherwise.
They just weren't the activists most people expected.
Last Thursday, the day before gun-control advocates watched the House vote down gun legislation, Christian activists pushing to return God to schools were toasting the passage of several pet amendments.
Religion was the only one of three approaches to reducing teenage violence attached to the juvenile justice bill that survived the House. The most extreme of the cultural solutions--prohibiting sex and violence in entertainment--failed. Gun control went down too.
But three religious amendments that would have been unthinkable before the Columbine school shootings breezed through, with surprising support from Democrats. The "Ten Commandments Defense Act" empowers states to allow the display of the Ten Commandments in public places. "Freedom of Student Religious Expression" makes it harder to sue a school when students do things like pray or read Bible stories in class. And a third, unnamed amendment declares that a memorial service or statue on school property can be overtly religious without violating the Constitution.
Not since the 1950s, when Congress added the words "under God" to the Pledge of Allegiance, have lawmakers tried to insert religious symbols so directly into the public sphere.
"I have people calling my office, elated that such a piece of legislation could actually pass the House," said Rep. Robert Aderholt (R-Ala.), who had watched his Ten Commandments amendment choke in committee last year. "It's been decades since Congress tried to change our religious heritage."
Until now, these proposals were thought of as deeply felt but futile crusades of the Christian right. Most were based on ideas that had been around for years but tailored to the specific circumstances of Littleton. All passed last week with sizable majorities.
For the lately beleaguered religious conservatives, it was a Willy Wonka moment: The golden ticket that had long eluded them was now in their pockets. And the morning after, they sounded suitably stunned and triumphal.
Pat Robertson of the Christian Coalition called it a "tremendous victory for people of faith."
"I have to tell you, it's amazing to us, there's a whole lot of us going 'Wow,' " said Janet Parshall, national advocate of the Family Research Council. "After all these school shootings we thought maybe we could get a discussion going, introduce some ideas, but this is tremendous."
Civil libertarians who had been manning the wall separating church and state experienced a different set of emotions, of course, upon waking to the news. In a day's time, the burden of proof had shifted, and many felt blind-sided.
"This is a unique day in church-state history," said Joseph Conn of Americans United for Separation of Church and State, a watchdog of the religious right. "Never before in a 24-hour period has there been such a massive attack in the U.S. House of Representatives on so many legislative fronts."
But their defensiveness was quickly replaced by confidence. Many said the amendments were blatantly unconstitutional and if any make it into the final version of the juvenile justice bill, groups like the ACLU and Americans United said that they would be easy to challenge in court.
The Ten Commandments bill was born in Alabama, sacred ground for what has come to be known in Christian circles as the Ten Commandments Crusade. Its goal is to have tablets bearing the biblical injunctions displayed in courtrooms, schools, statehouses and city halls.
The movement's Braveheart is Alabama Circuit Court Judge Roy Moore, who three years ago refused to take the commandments down from the wall of his Etowah County courtroom.
Moore's defiance inspired Christian activists across the country. In Ohio, the Adams County Ministerial Association planted large stone tablets on the lawns of four local schools in 1997. The resulting ACLU challenge acted like a tonic to the incipient movement: 1,500 parents gathered in the gym of one of the schools to sing "God Bless America," according to local reports, before launching a group called the Ten Commandments Committee to fight back. (The case is still in court.)
Tablets have been spotted in a Lumpkin County, Ga., courthouse; a municipal building in Ogden, Utah; a courthouse in Ashville, N.C.; and the city hall in Manhattan, Kan., to name a few. Dennis Pape, founder of the local affiliates of the American Family Association, travels through Wisconsin and Michigan county courtrooms urging judges to follow Moore's example.
Civil libertarians point to an obvious impediment. In the 1980 case Stone v. Graham, the Supreme Court declared unconstitutional a Kentucky law requiring schools to mount copies of the Ten Commandments.
The amendment's defenders say the Supreme Court should have left the decision about whether to display the Ten Commandments to the states. They also argue that the commandments are less overtly religious than universally shared principles on the level of "In God We Trust" on the dollar bill.
The other two amendments dealing with religious expression in schools are direct products of Littleton. For Christian activists, the shootings at Columbine High School had become a religious parable without an ending. To many, Cassie Bernall and Rachel Scott--two Columbine victims known for their faith--were martyrs who had to have died for a reason, and by helping bring God back into the schools their deaths have been redeemed.
"People realized it's not their 401(k)s and the stock market, but family and faith in God that are really important," said Rep. Tom Tancredo (R-Colo.), who introduced the amendment allowing religious memorials in schools and whose district includes Littleton.
The idea for the bill came to Tancredo in a moment of exasperation, when civil libertarians complained about the Christian overtones of the memorial held after the shootings. Afterward, a debate erupted over whether crosses could be erected on school or state property. The whole controversy was "idiotic," Tancredo said.
"When we are desperate to strip away every degree of religiosity, we pay the price with things like Columbine," Tancredo said. "What those two young men needed," he added of the killers, "was not a counselor but an exorcist."
Tancredo's bill asserts that saying prayers, reading Scripture or singing religious songs can be part of a memorial for anyone killed on school property. It also permits permanent memorials to include religious symbols or slogans.
The bill also reverses a practice in many civil rights cases where the losing side in a suit has to pay both sides' legal costs, which civil libertarians consider necessary to allow citizens with few resources to sue. According to the bill, the plaintiff's lawyer fees in such cases cannot be reimbursed.
"The opponents go, 'This will have a chilling effect on those kinds of suits,' and I'm thinking 'great,' " said Tancredo.
The third amendment, introduced by Rep. Jim DeMint (R-S.C.), applies the same principle to voluntary religious expression by students. DeMint said he has collected a file of stories from schools around the nation where students have tried to hold voluntary prayer groups, or printed up T-shirts with religious slogans, or brought Bible stories for show-and-tell, only to be thwarted by the threat of an ACLU suit.
"If we keep telling children to check their faith at the door," said DeMint, "they won't have any basis to know right from wrong."
But the initial glow of legislative victory is already starting to fade, as legal realities to set in. John Whitehead, former lawyer for Paula Jones and head of the Rutherford Institute, has spent two decades defending students who want to pray on school grounds. And the courts have not made him an optimist.
"There is a huge frustration out there and people are grasping at symbols," he said. "But ultimately there will always be a great fear of religion in this country."
Debate Over Religious Amendments
"People realized it's not their 401(k)s and the stock market, but family and faith in God that are really important."
-- Rep. Tom Tancredo (R-Colo.), who introduced the amendment allowing religious memorials in schools and whose district includes Littleton.
"This is a unique day in church-state history. Never before in a 24-hour period has there been such a massive attack in the U.S. House of Representatives on so many legislative fronts."
-- Joseph Conn, Americans United for Separation of Church and State