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Founding fathers were invoked during the first of three hearings on amending the Utah Constitution to permit public prayer held by a panel of legislative, religious and secular leaders.

The majority of the nearly 70 Utahns who testified before the state's Religious Liberties Committee Monday supported amending the state constitution to permit prayer and other public expressions of religion.Backers of an amendment they believe will protect their religious liberties relied on the words of George Washington, Thomas Jefferson and other early leaders.

Marlow Draney warned the United States is suffering from a lack of moral fiber that could be fatal if history is rewritten "so as to strip our founding fathers of that which they valued most, their belief in God."

Draney and others quoted Washington. "Reason and experience both forbid us to expect that national morality can prevail in exclusion of religious principle," the first president had said.

But some of the men, women and children who crowded into the hearing room talked instead about the effect religion in public life has had on their families.

Emily Griff choked back tears as she described how her son was bullied by classmates for not being a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. "You talk about majority rule, but you practice mob rule," she said.

"This is no longer the `State of Deseret' where you can force your views on other people," Griff said, referring to the Mormon pioneers' early name for the Utah Territory. "This is the United States of America, and we practice a separation of church and state here."

Margaret Townsend said her son, too, had suffered at the hands of his peers for his religious beliefs even though he, like 70 percent of Utahns, is a member of the LDS Church.

"Maybe if God and prayer were in the schools, maybe if morals were permitted to be taught, many of the problems then would diminish," Townsend said.She also said Utahns are tolerant of minority faiths. "We do not force non-LDS to live in Utah although we welcome them here and believe in their right to worship as they please," Townsend said.

The issue of amending the state constitution surfaced earlier this year, when the Society of Separationists successfully sued the Salt Lake City Council to stop prayers during meetings.

The case is being appealed to the Utah Supreme Court, but a coalition of conservative groups has been pressing lawmakers not to wait to approve a constitutional amendment.

The Utah Constitution prohibits any union of church and state as well as any church from dominating the state or interfering with its functions. No public money or property can be used for religious worship, exercise or instruction.

Any change to the constitution must be approved by both a two-thirds majority of the Legislature as well as a majority of voters in a general election. The soonest the issue could appear on a ballot is November 1994.

The committee is scheduled to make its recommendation to the 1993 Legislature in January. Public hearings are planned for Nov. 11 and Dec. 2 using a statewide, closed-circuit television network.