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Demands Respect : Religious Right Grows and Fights

Times Staff Writer

Five years ago, Bernadine DeMike, director of a ballet theater and school near here, found booklets in her mailbox from an organization in Virginia, warning that something called “secular humanism” would one day be coming to her school district.

She mentioned the booklets to a woman who lived down the street, then forgot about them until her neighbor called last spring. It’s here, the friend told DeMike. It’s in our school.

So began a type of confrontation increasingly prevalent in dozens of communities throughout the country.

Unchanging Truths

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The struggle in the Buffalo area over a public school program called EPIC (Effective Parenting Information for Children) offers another telling sign that the burgeoning fundamentalist religious right is claiming an ever more prominent role in the public arena, demanding to be heard and respected. At its heart, the dispute here is between those who see a world of fixed moral order and unchanging truths and those who do not.

The fundamentalists in the country are, for the first time in 50 years, no longer a fringe group, or unsophisticated, or confined to particular regions.

Polls indicate that a full 40% of the adult population qualify as what is commonly referred to as born-again Christians and 20% meet the more stringent definitions of the evangelical Protestants. They are distinguished above all by a belief in the literal word of the Bible.

More than half do not live in the South. They are not, contrary to popular stereotype, predominantly less well educated, elderly or lower class. Demographic studies show that they look much like a cross section of the entire population. A good number are the offspring of rural Bible Belt parents, newly moved to the suburbs of metropolitan areas.

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Mainline Churches Decline

Young married couples, particularly, are joining fundamentalist churches while the congregations in mainline churches age and decline in number. Increasingly, they are sending their children to private Christian schools and are listening to evangelical pop musicians.

“This group has been a sleeping giant ever since the Scopes trial,” said Cal Thomas, a syndicated columnist and vice president of the Moral Majority, the most prominent of several religious right organizations. “Now they are getting involved, and it’s not the old-style fundamentalists in polyester and white socks. The torch has passed to another generation that looks and acts different. People who never knew they existed are pretty surprised.”

Others often use the term “scary” to describe this new religious right. But those who have studied the group say it is just as appropriate to describe them as “scared.”

They are responding defensively, say a number of sociologists and historians, to what they see as forces of change imposed on them by an increasingly secular society that, since the mid-1960s, has adopted a wide range of new principles, including rights for women, minorities and gays, legalized abortion, sex education, prohibition of prayer in public schools and limitations on censorship. They are convinced that their way of life is under attack, and they are triggered in large part by a desire to contain the changes and rescind the legacy of the ‘60s.

“It is significant that virtually every item on the New Right’s social agenda is a protest against a liberal initiative,” said William Schneider, a resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and The Times’ political analyst. “They weren’t anti-ERA until there was an ERA. They were anti-gay only after a pro-gay ordinance passed in Florida. They were for creationism after laws passed mandating the teaching of evolution. Others see them as an aggressive right-wing movement attempting to impose their values, but the right sees it exactly the opposite.”

Harnessing a Movement

On the national level, these attitudes have been organized and guided by a relatively small handful of skilled operatives with a detailed national political agenda. But those leaders have not so much created a movement as they have harnessed deeply felt sentiments.

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The roots that give the religious right its strength and provide its most clear impact can be found not in the national headquarters of organizations such as the Moral Majority but in the dozens of communities where more local struggles unfold, largely unnoticed, focusing with great fervor on matters close to home.

A large number of these revolve around who will control the shaping of children, and thus the future. So, finally, the school becomes the most common battlefield, and questions about textbooks, sex education, curriculum and classroom prayer the rallying points.

It is just such a confrontation that the Buffalo area has found itself dealing with in recent months.

This metropolitan region in western New York most visibly displays a deeply rooted Polish and Italian Catholic heritage, and a chronic economic depression marked by a number of shuttered industrial plants. Until recently, few here knew that their community included a strong force of the religious right.

Uncertainty Sensed

That force is a combination of Protestant fundamentalists and conservative Catholics, a coalition not uncommon in the nation. Their approaches to their faiths differ, and the fundamentalists are much more in step with their pastors than the Catholics are with their priests. But they share a discomfort with the uncertainty they sense everywhere in the modern world.

The Buffalo community, confronted by this group, has discovered just how great a gap exists between neighbors. Hours of conversations leave those pitted against each other baffled and frustrated at the failure to resolve differences.

“We consider ourselves just basic, decent people who want our kids to learn our values. Leave us alone is all we ask. The fanatics are the ones imposing their values on us,” said Carol Fisher, 33, an EPIC opponent who is also so disenchanted with the private Catholic schools that she now teaches her children at home.

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“We’re not trying to change or impose on anyone. Just the opposite. I feel they are. But they say I am. I become the radical. It’s so frustrating. People hear and see only what they want,” said Diane Blackwell, 33, a local PTA officer and EPIC supporter.

EPIC was not seen as particularly controversial when it was started here in 1981.

The program began as an idea in the mind of businessman Bob Wilson, now 75, after his wife was murdered by a local youth caught robbing their farmhouse. Grief-stricken, Wilson began wondering why a boy of 15 would do such a thing. In tracing his background, he found that the youth had spent most of his life bouncing among 11 foster homes. Wilson decided to devote the rest of his life to preventing other such situations.

EPIC was conceived as a support and guidance program involving teachers, parents and the community in an effort to reach children at their earliest years and help prevent child abuse and neglect, teen-age pregnancy, drug and alcohol abuse and juvenile crime.

Program Trains Teachers

Rather than offer its own curriculum or specific course, the program trains parents and teachers in all classes to develop and encourage what it calls children’s “self-concept, responsible behavior and decision-making, problem-solving skills.”

Start-up money came from the United Way, later supplemented by grants from foundations and government agencies. The Buffalo school system quickly embraced EPIC. Its superintendent, Eugene Reville, called it “an excellent program . . . something that should have been done a long time ago.”

Reville even joined EPIC’s board of directors. So did Msgr. James Campbell, a former superintendent of the Catholic diocese’s school system, and Rep. Jack Kemp (R-N.Y.), the conservative congressman from this region often mentioned as a potential Republican presidential candidate in 1988.

The possibility of conflict did not suggest itself until EPIC began expanding into outlying suburban school districts. Those were regions where many had purposefully settled in order to avoid the type of problems EPIC wanted to address.

One such suburb is Orchard Park, a middle-class enclave to the south of the city. DeMike, the mother of seven, a born-again Christian and a member of the local Full Gospel Tabernacle Church, lives there.

Godless Humanism

When she heard about EPIC, DeMike thought it sounded like the godless system of relative values described as secular humanism in the booklets from Virginia.

Those booklets most clearly illustrate the connection between the national religious right and such local struggles as the one in Buffalo. They suggest also that the rise of the religious right involves more than simply a spontaneous response from the heartland.

The booklets are one result of developments that began in 1978, when the Internal Revenue Service began efforts to remove the tax-exempt status of Christian schools that were not racially integrated.

Warren Billings, former head of the National Christian Action Coalition, used the mailing list of the “Old Time Gospel Hour” television show to mobilize a massive letter-writing campaign against the IRS action. The impressive response drew the attention of several conservative strategists, including Ed McAteer, Paul Weyrich, Howard Phillips, and Richard A. Viguerie, who had built up a large and sophisticated computerized direct mail operation espousing right-wing causes. These men began to see the potential of using moral social issues to organize and broaden the conservative political base.

They helped create several loosely linked organizations, including the Conservative Caucus, the Religious Roundtable and Christian Voice, which began issuing “biblical score cards” rating legislators on a range of issues. Most important, in 1978 McAteer took Phillips to lunch near Lynchburg, Va., to meet a then little-known pastor, Jerry Falwell. They proposed that Falwell be the head of a new movement that would draw in the religiously minded. Phillips suggested that it be called the Moral Majority.

Moral Majority Theorist

A co-founder of the Moral Majority, and one of its chief theorists, was a San Diego-based preacher, the Rev. Tim LaHaye, now head of the American Coalition for Traditional Values in Washington. In his writings and in interviews with journalists, LaHaye has spelled out his creed.

Much that is wrong with America can be blamed on secular humanism, the country’s unacknowledged religion that puts man, rather than God, at the center of all things, he believes. It has spread by way of graduate schools of education, mainly the Columbia University Teachers College. Public education is riddled with secular humanism.

LaHaye’s writings came to form the base of much literature sent out by the religious right.

DeMike does not recall which organization sent her the booklets she received in 1980, but she knows that the booklets came from Virginia, which is the home of Viguerie’s direct mail operation, the Moral Majority and several other religious right organizations.

DeMike began warning others about EPIC. Parents started to look at the type of exercises suggested in EPIC’s manuals.

Their children, they soon saw, were being presented with hypothetical situations that called for the students to make choices and decisions.

‘How Will You Decide?’

“You would like to attend a church service with your best friend who is of a different religion,” one EPIC question stated. “You are not sure if your parents will permit you to do this. How will you decide what to do?”

On a spaceship survival trip, another EPIC question asks, “determine what to take with you. Pretend the ship develops trouble and that load must be lightened. What could you discard?”

A third question asked children to “list a number of common situations involving rights and responsibilities. Determine which is greater, your right to be silent (not involved), or your responsibility to be helpful.” Among the examples then offered: “You witness an accident . . . . You observe someone selling drugs or alcohol to children . . . . Someone you know, or a stranger, has asked you to take off your clothing or has touched you in a way that makes you uncomfortable.”

There was, to a number of parents, something very troubling about these types of questions. They seemed to challenge the authority of the parents, to invade the privacy of the family and to touch at times on sex education. But, above all, the questions seemed to carry with them the presumption that the children were free to reason through to their own answers. If they could do that, it meant that there were no moral absolutes, and nothing was clearly right or wrong, good or bad.

This was not the world view of fundamentalists who believe in the literal word of the Bible.

Deciding Own Values Feared

“Once you tell a child that he has to decide upon his own values system, that’s like saying that values are not real, and you can just make them up as you go along,” said Marjorie McNabb, a former Episcopalian who now attends a Baptist church. “Children would be better raised by a street gang than EPIC. At least, they’d learn two values, courage and loyalty. That’s better than no values.”

And so the battle was joined.

In the March, 1984, edition of the Buffalo Regional Right to Life Newsletter, there appeared a small item reporting that a meeting would be held at the Frontier Central High School on March 21 to explore the “other side” of the EPIC program. A few letters to the editor began to appear in the Buffalo News, linking EPIC with the phrase secular humanism.

“We really laughed when all this first began to happen,” said Sandra Rifkin, EPIC’s executive director. “Who would be against improving a child’s self concept or decision-making skills or sense of responsibility?”

Many more than she thought.

The Frontier High meeting drew a sizable crowd. DeMike spoke and made a vivid impression. One of those in the audience was Carol Fisher, mother of six, wife of a government meteorologist working at the Buffalo airport. She was there only by chance, because a friend who could not attend had asked that she take notes for her.

Prying and Playing Around

Fisher had always been bothered by what went on in the Pennsylvania high school she had attended in the late 1960s. There had been, for her, too much prying and judgments and playing around. Social studies class focused more on people’s home life than on history, it seemed.

Later, as she began rearing her family, all around her in the world she saw what she considered to be “a lot of garbage.” Pornography, homosexuality, sex education, rules against school prayers--"everything from the ACLU to the YWCA,” she would say. Abortion particularly upset her.

“Until the Frontier High meeting, I never knew what it was that had troubled me about all that,” she said. “Then, that night I heard about EPIC for the first time, and Bernadine also was talking about ‘affective education.’ She finally was putting a name to what always bothered me.”

Fisher became one of EPIC’s most vocal and visible critics. The program mobilized others also. They included married couples in their thirties rearing young children, a downtown Buffalo lawyer and several former teachers with master’s degrees who had retired to rear families.

We are not right-wing religious fanatics and we are not all fundamentalists, they said over and over.

But religion finally was at the heart of the matter.

One mother placed a call to the Rev. Kevin Bakkus, assistant pastor at the fundamentalist Bible Presbyterian Church in Grand Island, a suburban community 15 miles to the north of Buffalo.

Horrified by Manuals

When Bakkus read EPIC’s manuals and materials, he was horrified. At age 28, he typifies the new fundamentalist generation.

He was born in Grand Island and reared by his mother, who was divorced when he was young, and a stepfather, whose jobs as a sales manager kept the family moving frequently.

As he grew up, Bakkus shifted from the Presbyterian to the Lutheran and finally the Methodist church, but they all seemed vacuous to him. He studied Eastern religions and Judaism. Then he read the New Testament and finally found what he had missed in the mainline churches.

“The early ‘70s were an uprooted time,” he said. “I was looking for truth. In my mind, it wasn’t something relative. I have a hard time accepting that truth is one thing today, another tomorrow. Truth is something you base your life on. Fundamentalist Christians make decisions based on the Scripture. You may think that’s archaic, but that’s our belief.”

Bakkus had spoken out against other issues before EPIC arrived, focusing particularly on abortion and homosexuality. As he sees it, he has always simply responded to what was happening about him.

“The first time I talked about abortion was in 1973, after the Supreme Court in Roe vs. Wade made it legal. Homosexuality is becoming more and more open and blatant, and there’s a push to make it acceptable. I talk about these things more because the nation is, and we are part of the nation. We must take a stand. All of this attacks our world view. We started a church school in the late ‘70s because of this. EPIC became an issue with us because it was brought to us, forced on us, and it was local.”

Parents Demand Probe

These sentiments erupted at a press conference that anti-EPIC forces held on June 22 at the Buffalo and Erie County Public Library. Angry parents from a number of school districts demanded an investigation of the program. There was talk that the program was not a local and independent creation but was, in fact, nationwide, coming out of graduate schools of education, psychology and sociology.

In the weeks that followed, the debate mushroomed, in letters to the editor columns, at school board and town meetings and, above all, as a continuing topic on a local radio talk show.

Again, the local battle brushed up against the national religious right movement.

Some parents began delivering to school officials a form letter distributed across the country by, among others, Phyllis Schlafly’s self-described “pro-family” organization, the Eagle Forum. The letter reminds educators that, under the Protection of Pupil Rights Amendment (the Hatch Amendment) to the General Education Provisions Act, parents may file formal complaints against public school curricula. The letter requests that the parent’s children not be involved in a broad range of school activities, including “use of moral dilemmas” and “open-ended discussions of situations involving moral issues.”

Fisher and attorney Stacey Vogel one day flew to Washington to visit Rep. Kemp, who looks to the religious right as part of his constituency. Soon after, EPIC’s founder, Wilson, received a handwritten letter from Kemp. It read: “Unfortunately, at this time I am extremely busy with my congressional responsibilities and just can’t take the time to be on your board of directors in any continuing capacity. I hope you’ll understand.”

Refused to Join Debate

Rifkin and EPIC’s associate director, Carol Lipsky, at first had refused to join the debate, not wanting to fuel the flames. But, finally, they decided that they had better take these people seriously.

Both spent hours talking to DeMike and others. They invited some to sit in on EPIC’s workshops for parents. Rifkin, in turn, attended services at a fundamentalist church and started watching the Sunday morning television evangelical preachers.

Rifkin felt that she was beginning to understand.

“If you turn on some TV preacher like Jimmy Swaggert, you can see why they are reacting,” she said. “It’s incredible. They’re told they are going to burn in hell if they don’t. If there is no firm moral order with clear right and wrong, then they have nothing. I went to the church services because I wanted to understand and honestly didn’t think anyone could be against EPIC. I saw fear. And I saw middle-class people with not much in their lives. They had found something in this issue.”

In late September, the first direct attempt to block EPIC from a school district took place in Grand Island.

The assistant superintendent of the school district there invited EPIC to make a presentation before the school board. But, when Wilson, Rifkin and Lipsky appeared the night of Sept. 24, they found that the audience included some of EPIC’s most vocal critics. The school board vice chairman ruled that the EPIC issue had never formally been made an agenda item, so there could be no presentation. Then, the board voted 5 to 2 for a resolution that said EPIC “is not and shall not be a part of the Grand Island curriculum.”

For the first time, EPIC had been kept out of a school district. When asked for his reaction, EPIC’s elderly founder, Wilson, could manage only a long silence and a teary-eyed stare.

But the fight was not over. Under pressure, the board agreed to hold an open hearing in late November at which both sides could make presentations.

Began Marshaling Forces

Bakkus began marshaling his forces. He raised the matter of EPIC with his congregation. He brought the program’s materials to an adult Sunday school class and read excerpts. He demonstrated some of EPIC’s teaching exercises.

“Then I said, ‘You are citizens. If you don’t think you want this in our schools, then please make an effort to show up at the school board meeting.’ ”

Dozens of Bible Presbyterian Church members attended the Nov. 27 hearing.

School board member Dean Reck, who had voted against EPIC in September, felt uneasy and surprised. The issue had assumed too much of a religious tone for him.

“My neighbor two doors down, who has a nice family and works for the same company I do, was there. I had never seen him at a school board meeting or speaking out on issues before. It turned out he was a member of Bible Presbyterian. Before this issue came up, I was never aware of this group.”

The battle was over before it began. Reck decided to switch his vote, but that did not change the outcome. This time the board voted 4 to 3 against EPIC.

“We could force EPIC on the community, but it was like pushing stones up a hill,” a resigned Reck said recently. “The fight to do EPIC wasn’t worth it. It was too divisive.”

Fueled by the Grand Island victory, the anti-EPIC forces have begun taking aim at districts already using the program, focusing particularly on the town of Hamburg, a middle-class suburb south of Buffalo. So far, the local school board has held firm, refusing to drop EPIC, but the pressure continues. In late March in Hamburg, William Oliverio from the Grand Island school board and others denounced the program at an intense meeting.

‘Taking on Little Slices’

What to make of all this is a question with no clear answer for many here.

Grand Island school board member Reck said: “On future issues, I don’t see these groups taking on big items that the state or federal governments control. I see them taking on little slices. When 250 show up, that looks big, but it’s really a relatively small group.”

Father Campbell, who sits on EPIC’s board of directors, tends to look at the situation from a historical perspective.

He knows that, in different ways, the reaction occurring now has unfolded over and over again in American history. Conservative religious groups from anti-Masonics to Nativists and Know Nothings have rallied around assorted causes, fighting to preserve a way of life, only to be absorbed into the social fabric.

He knows also that studies show that the religious right in this country, although united on social issues such as abortion and school prayer, does not at all agree on a full political agenda that includes economic and foreign affairs. Blacks, for example, make up a disproportionate part of the fundamentalist movement but are much more liberal than the norm on many issues. In fact, the majority of fundamentalists, the polls indicate, are not political at all.

“There is always someone with a sense of something being taken away,” he said. “There is always a reaction to changing values. But my own sense is that, in western New York, this force is limited. I think it will eventually die out.”

Others are not so sure.

Former Congressman

On March 1, John Buchanan, chairman of the Washington-based People for American Way, an organization formed by producer Norman Lear to oppose the religious right, came to Buffalo to speak to school administrators from 17 Erie County school districts. He is a Baptist minister. He is also a former eight-term Alabama congressmen who lost his seat in 1980 after incurring the wrath of the religious right in his district over a school prayer vote and his refusal to agree that the Department of Education was trying to establish the religion of secular humanism.

Buchanan talked of many other towns, from Hillsboro, Mo., to Church Hill, Tenn., and Cobb County, Ga., where battles similar to Buffalo’s were under way. The same pamphlets and phrases pop up in each community, he said, coming from such organizations as Phyllis Schlafly’s Eagle Forum, Mel and Norma Gabler’s Educational Research Analysts, Jerry Falwell’s Moral Majority and Tim and Beverly LaHaye’s Concerned Women for America. Buchanan called what was unfolding in the country “slander and scandal.”

For her part, Rifkin wants to downplay the importance of her opponents but, reluctantly, she acknowledges that EPIC’s foes have affected the program in many more locales than Grand Island.

“To be honest, EPIC is having trouble in western New York now,” Rifkin said. “School districts are lying low. They don’t even want to pass out our flyers. The two districts adjacent to Hamburg, Frontier and Eden, won’t touch us. Right now, we don’t want to introduce EPIC to any school board where there will be confrontation. We were preparing to apply for national validation from the Department of Education, but we’ve decided this is not a good year to do that.”

Force to Be Reckoned With

So Diane Blackwell, the young Hamburg PTA official, has taken to visiting other school districts, defending EPIC. Whether or not the religious right is a lasting force, she has decided that, for now, it is one to be reckoned with.

“What’s happening in Hamburg is small,” she said one day recently. “But it’s starting to happen everywhere. You know, if you had mentioned Jerry Falwell to me a few months ago, I wouldn’t have known who you were talking about. I read, and I’m not stupid. But I never thought this would relate to or affect me. Now, suddenly, I’m trying to catch up with what this is all about. Secular humanism? Radical? I was born and raised in Hamburg, and this is just a small, tight bedroom community. This is a real revelation.”


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