Rise of Religious Groups Divides Conservative Town : Tolerance: Influx makes Colorado Springs nation's evangelical capital. Some see threat to city's traditions.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

At Rampart High School, things have changed so much that 17-year-old Jennifer Fry said it "doesn't seem like a public school any more."

Students drive cars with religious bumper stickers and wear T-shirts emblazoned with depictions of bloody fetuses and religious slogans. One student sobbed in the hallways because a friend had not accepted Jesus Christ.

"In class, it doesn't matter what we're discussing, the 'God thing' is dragged in a lot," said Fry, an intern at a weekly newspaper that writes critically of the growing religious influences here.

"If we're talking about an earthquake in Malaysia, someone will say it's a sign of the Rapture. I call it plate tectonics."

From its beginnings in the mid-1800s as a resort and mining center nestled on the eastern flank of Pikes Peak, Colorado Springs has been a bedrock of conservative values. It is home to Ft. Carson Army Base, the Air Force Academy and the North American Air Defense Command.

But some longtime residents of this town--which prides itself on a tradition of live-and-let-live libertarianism--say they are unnerved by a recent influx of fundamentalist Christian organizations that have made this community of 306,000 people the evangelical capital of the United States.

Now home to 50 national Christian religious groups--half of which arrived during the past decade--Colorado Springs has become a place where a police officer gave a religious pamphlet to a developmentally disabled apartment resident who was disturbing the peace and where children were invited to a carnival, only to be baptized without their parents' knowledge.

Colorado Springs is also the community that spawned the highly controversial Amendment 2, a 1992 statewide initiative barring anti-discrimination laws aimed at protecting homosexuals. Amendment 2 was ruled unconstitutional in state district court and is now on appeal to the state Supreme Court.

Several leaders of the new religious groups say the concerns are unfounded. They came here, they say, because of bargain land and housing prices, spectacular mountain vistas and a community already known for its solid conservative views. Now they say they want to nest peacefully as good neighbors while continuing their evangelical and charity work across the country and around the world.

If anyone suffers from discrimination or intolerance, they say, it is they and their children who are forced to live in a secular society and attend "Godless schools."

However, many of the same people who tangled over Amendment 2 now are entrenched in bitter ideological disputes over what should be accepted as authentic knowledge in schools and practical values in the community.

Such tug-of-wars are taking place in hundreds of communities across the nation. Typically, evangelical Christians say they are trying to live by absolutes derived from Scripture, while liberals say they are merely espousing tolerance for cultural and religious differences and subscribing to the scientific method.

But many of the clashes here over moral, ethical and religious issues are among staunch conservatives who also consider themselves Christians. These disputes are impacting daily life in City Hall and in neighborhoods and schools throughout the community.

"What's happening here is very unfortunate; it's a strange town to live in right now," said attorney Greg Walta, a fundamentalist Christian who has lived here since 1968. He said some of the conservative religious newcomers "stereotype" people who do not believe as they do, a trend he describes as "destructive to our schools and our community."

In local schools, some teachers say they now choose their words carefully. One high school instructor said she prefaces her comments from the lectern with "this is only my personal opinion," to avoid antagonizing pupils who cite biblical passages to dispute her lessons.

The newly arrived Christian leaders are not trying to compete with existing religious groups or stack school boards or the City Council, said Paul Hetrick, vice president of Focus on the Family, a nationally prominent group that relocated from Pomona to Colorado Springs in 1991.

"We are designed to support the ministry of churches rather than compete with them," said Hetrick, whose organization is by far the largest religious group in Colorado Springs, with about 1,200 employees and an income of $94 million last year. As a ministry aimed at bolstering family values via the airwaves and publications, he added, "we are not conversant in local school issues other than looking at newspapers when we get home from work."

But some other leaders and members of other fundamentalist groups here say they believe that there can be no middle ground.

"What's going on in Colorado Springs is a battle over religious principles," said Kevin Tebedo, a native of Colorado Springs and spokesman for the group Colorado for Family Values, which sponsored Amendment 2. "The two sides cannot come together," he said, because at its root, "Judeo-Christianity is very intolerant."

"Jesus said: 'I am the way, the truth, and the life, and no man comes to the Father but by me.' You don't get there through Buddha, Allah, Mary Baker Eddy, Charles Darwin or Joseph Smith," Tebedo added. "If you've rejected Jesus Christ as your savior, you're going to hell."

Some townsfolk call that a confrontational brand of Christianity and a growing threat to the city's cultural diversity, schools, civil liberties and image.

The influx gathered momentum in 1989 when, in the depths of the state's last recession, the city's economic development arm began scrambling to attract new businesses and nonprofit groups to help diversify the local economy. One staffer of the Economic Development Corp. turned to her network of personal contacts among Christian groups.

That targeting strategy, which produced a bonanza, was halted this year because "we clearly now have a critical mass of those (religious) organizations, as well as telemarketing and defense contract firms that we didn't have before," said Rocky Scott, president of the Economic Development Corp.

While the agency will continue to help relocate religious organizations if asked, it is now emphasizing high-technology firms because the city badly needs independence from declining military spending that supports 50% of its jobs, Scott said.

The religious groups that are here, he added, deserve praise for the 3,000 positions and estimated $300 million they generate annually. But some longtime residents note that these religious organizations are tax-exempt and that the jobs they have brought will not make up for further defense cutbacks that may target Ft. Carson, which accounts for 20% of local jobs.

Still others point to acrimony on the city's Human Relations Commission as evidence of an unintended consequence of the influx--heightened political tensions in a city already polarized by passage of Amendment 2.

On June 13, the 15-member commission, which has been in existence for nearly three decades, was suspended for six months by the City Council, in part because the panel had reached a bitter impasse over proposals to meet with community groups that advocate civil rights for homosexuals.

City officials are currently reviewing the commission's purpose. Until now, that mission seemed clear-cut: work toward the elimination of prejudice, intolerance and intergroup tensions, and promote goodwill, community awareness, mutual understanding and respect.

Not anymore, according to Human Relations Commissioner Vincent D'Acchioli, who moved from Los Angeles to Colorado Springs in 1991 to help Every Home for Christ set up shop. D'Acchioli objected bitterly to any commissioner appearing to sanction gay groups by talking to them.

D'Acchioli, who compares the local gay rights group Ground Zero to the Ku Klux Klan, says he vehemently believes that homosexuals and those who celebrate diversity are undermining traditional American values grounded in Judeo-Christian tradition.

"The 'celebrate diversity' crowd is a tragedy to me--it's like celebrating our differences," D'Acchioli said. "My idea is to get away from that garbage."

"Colorado Springs is a battleground for heated issues such as abortion and homosexuality," D'Acchioli added. "When one side or the other will not settle for total surrender--and that's what you have here--there can be no compromise."

Angry over such strident views, and the sway conservative religious groups seemed to have over community affairs, a diverse group of residents banded together three years ago to form the Citizens Project. The group, which includes conservative Christians and liberals, publishes a monthly newsletter called Freedom Watch, which monitors the activities of conservative religious groups and individuals.

For example, the incident last summer involving the police officer who handed out a religious pamphlet alarmed Citizens Project members and others who saw it as an unwarranted intrusion of church in police matters.

After the incident, police officials said it was against department policy for the officer to have given a religious pamphlet to the man, who had been talking loudly on a downtown apartment telephone after 10 p.m. Police officials said "appropriate action" was taken, but they declined to say whether the officer, one of about 30 members of Police Officers for Christ here, was disciplined.

In an effort to promote alternative viewpoints, Citizens Project also hosts "dialogue dinners"--informal gatherings of residents who discuss a range of personal views on issues ranging from abortion to school curriculum.

"We believe the problem (in Colorado Springs) is a small but incredibly vocal minority bolstered by the critical mass of conservative religious organizations," said Mike Shaver, co-director of Citizens Project and an avowed Christian. "The dialogue dinners aim to build consensus, to look for areas where a majority of people can agree."

A separate effort to find common ground between the opposing factions involves local clergy in a 2-year-old, broad-based "community concerns group" representing every shade of opinion--from conservative evangelical to liberal.

Leaders of that group include Rabbi Harold Hirsch of Temple Shalom and James C. Dobson, president of Focus on the Family, which has hosted unity meetings of its own.

"Our goal," Hirsch said, "is to move toward mutual understanding rather than mutual recrimination."

School officials want the same thing in troubled District 20, where the hottest topics of the moment are sex education, the origin of the human race and contentious Christian students in school.

The influx of religious groups has been dramatic in the district, a booming sector of northern Colorado Springs enveloping Rampart High School and the Christian Missionary Alliance, Every Home for Christ and Focus on the Family.

There, parents were alarmed to learn earlier this month that four biology teachers at Rampart High School skipped two textbook chapters on evolution.

Some parents blamed the problem on pressure from fundamentalist Christians. High school officials denied that, saying the chapters were omitted because of their length and because they were redundant.

That dispute has been resolved, said Donna Nicholson, the district's new associate superintendent. "Evolution will be taught here," said Nicholson, who arrived four months ago from Longview, Tex., where she had to iron out similar disputes.

Nicholson said the real problem is a lack of written policies about how to address curriculum content. She has asked a school district lawyer to review policies with an eye toward correcting inconsistencies in the curriculum and clarifying the role of religion in school.

Rori Whelan, 43, who claims that her two daughters have been "victims of harassment by Christian bullies at school," says she plans to move to another side of town if the situation does not improve soon.

"On the playground, my 9-year-old daughter told some kids that she did not believe in Adam and Eve," Whelan said. "They made fun of her, told her that she was stupid and didn't believe in God."

She said her other daughter attended a sex education class at a middle school here two years ago in which a religious video was shown without permission of school district officials.

"This is a public school, for goodness sake," Whelan said. "I don't believe it is a place for people to inflict their beliefs on others. And certainly my kids should not be made to feel like second-class citizens because they don't preach Jesus in the hallway."

The Rev. Ted Haggard, senior pastor of the 4,800-member New Life Church, blames the uproar in District 20 and across town on "liberals" who are suddenly having to deal with issues that make them uncomfortable, but must be reckoned with nonetheless.

"I've seen Christians all over this nation, and man, these Christians (in Colorado Springs) are not hostile, angry people," said Haggard, who established his 10-year-old church after the "Holy Spirit spoke to me and said he had chosen this city for a special purpose."

"When a society switches to relativism, those who believe in absolutes stick out like a sore thumb," he said. "Colorado Springs is a gasp of hope that what was good in the Bible is still good."

But Pastor George Otto of the Broadmoor Community Church, part of the United Church of Christ, worries that some religious groups are trying to "produce a construct of folk who are relatively alike."

"These people are not going to be in the saddle forever," Otto said. "Ultimately, they will either moderate their positions, or this is just a phase in the life of American religion."

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World
54°