By M.E. SPRENGELMEYER
Scripps Howard News Service
June 21, 2005
Work in the House of Representatives ground to a halt for 30 tense minutes after Rep. John Hostettler, R-Ind., blasted Democrats for trying to use a $409 billion defense spending bill to take a stand against "coercive and abusive" proselytizing at the academy's Colorado Springs, Colo., campus.
Academy officials have acknowledged dozens of complaints about incidents of religious intolerance in recent years, prompting an ongoing investigation. But Hostettler said legislation condemning the situation was part of a "long war on Christianity" being waged by "the usual suspects, Democrats."
"Like a moth to a flame, Democrats can't help themselves when it comes to denigrating and demonizing Christians," Hostettler said.
Democrats burst to their feet, pointing and shouting.
Rep. David Obey, D-Wisc., demanded that Hostettler's words be "taken down." That's a rare parliamentary sanction for a breach of decorum. Had it been approved by a House vote, it would have taken away Hostettler's right to speak for the rest of the day.
Confused murmurs rumbled through the chamber, as Republicans huddled around a stoic Hostettler and Democrats rallied around Obey.
At one point, Rep. John "Jack" Murtha, D-Pa., wandered across the aisle, put his imposing, former Marine's frame just behind the seated Hostettler and said that he goes to church as often as Hostettler does.
Pointing into Hostettler's face, Murtha, a Vietnam veteran, kept repeating: "Ever been to combat? Ever been to combat?" Hostettler stayed seated and Murtha walked away scowling.
Rep. Joel Hefley, R-Colo., hovered nearby, trying to calm down the situation. Although Hefley sided with Hostettler during the debate and said didn't think Congress should "scrub religion or faith from all aspects of our public life," he said Hostettler's hot words about Democrats were unnecessary.
"I thought he injected partisanship where it didn't need to be," Hefley said later. "When you've got (Democratic National Committee Chairman) Howard Dean calling the Republican Party a 'white, Christian' party, they have in a sense attacked Christians. So I'm not sure from that standpoint it was out of line, but I don't think it was necessary for him to inject partisanship into this debate."
After a delay, Hostettler asked that his last sentence - about "demonizing Christians" - be stricken from the record. He was allowed to finish his remarks.
On a mostly party-line vote, the House rejected an amendment by Obey that would have strongly condemned "abusive religious proselytizing" and demanded that the academy submit plans to congress to fix the problems.
By a voice vote, they approved a compromise version by Rep. Duncan Hunter, R-Calif., which strikes any condemnation of the academy but requires reports on the religious climate to be submitted to lawmakers. Final action is now pending in the U.S. Senate, where the provision might or might not survive.
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