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Catholic, Christian right target elections.

NEW YORK -- Groups opposing the Christian right's campaign to influence New York's May 4 school board elections scrambled to organize Monday following word that the Catholic Archdiocese of New York will help distribute an election guide published by Pat Robertson's conservative Christian Coalition.

"There is concern that the Christian Coalition was getting new credibility," said Barbara Handman, New York director for People for the American Way, a First Amendment advocacy group. "Before it was like a gnat that you could shoo away."

Handman's group planned to add three staffers Monday to help field a flood of calls from people worried about the new alliance. Three of the callers were priests who didn't want to distribute the fliers because they thought Christian Coalition doctrine contradicts Catholic traditions advocating social justice, Handman said.

The group sponsored a press conference April 20 announcing the formation of a clergy council comprising Christian and Jewish clergy opposed to the rightwing agenda of the Christian Coalition, which set up shop in New York last year as part of a nationwide campaign to sway local elections.

Lori Cohen, a consultant to School PAC, a political action committee devoted to raising money for liberal school board candidates, said the new alliance was troubling. "We don't think Pat Robertson is supporting tolerance," she said.

Distributing the guide in churches may violate the spirit of a 1988 advisory from the Catholic church's legal counsel warning against involvement in politics, said Richard McBrien, a Notre Dame theologian. "At the very least, it's imprudent," said McBrien, who has written 15 books on Catholicism.

However, archdiocese spokesman Joseph Zwilling said the flap is unfounded. The archdiocese would have produced its own pamphlet if the coalition weren't printing one, he said.

"I really think there has been a lot more made of this than could reasonably have been expected," said Zwilling. "We intend to use their voter guide as long as it meets our guidelines. That doesn't mean we agree with everything they have said. We just have a common interest in the Board of Education."

The guide, which was scheduled to be released by April 23, describes the results of a survey answered by 200 of the 600 school board candidates, Zwilling said. The survey asked board candidates their views on teaching about homosexuality and premarital sex and about legislation that grants parents the right to inspect instructional materials and methods, according to a New York Times report.

The New York archdiocese's current interest in the Board of Education stems from an ongoing squabble over a 400-page "Rainbow Curriculum," introduced after a string of racially motivated killings in New York in the late 1980s. In addition to advice on teaching racial, cultural and religious tolerance, the curriculum included several pages about accommodating children of same-sex parents.

Those pages, plus a Board of Education program last year to distribute condoms in schools, made school board activists out of many New York Catholics, including Cardinal John O'Connor, who publicly condemned the condom distribution.

"It was only a matter of time" before the archdiocese and the Christian Coalition joined forces, said Richard Perez, who works with the Campaign for Inclusion and Multi-Cultural Education, a parent group.

Since Pat Robertson lost his bid to become president five years ago, the Christian Coalition has retooled its political strategy to focus on less-glamorous races like school boards, hospital boards and county party committees.

In local elections all over the country, where voter turnout percentages are sometimes measured in single digits, well-organized and fervent Christian Coalition members have learned they have what it takes to win.

"We don't have to worry about convicing a majority of Americans to agree with us," Guy Rodgers, the Christian Coalition's national field director, was quoted as saying at the 1991 Road to Victory conference. "Most of them are staying home and watching |Falcon Crest.'"

The voter guide's producer, the Rev. Terry Twerell of the Living World Christian Center in Manhattan, is betting the grass-roots strategy can work in New York, albeit with an accommodating local twist: While successful Christian Coalition candidates in other states have supported strict immigration limits and opposed bilingual education, the election guide to be distributed here next week will be published in English and Spanish.

"This is just pro-family Christians being educated as to what the issues are so that they can act on them," said Twerell, who also said he'd like to work again with the Catholic church. "It's been a wonderful experience.
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Title Annotation:New York City school board
Author:Smith, Matt
Publication:National Catholic Reporter
Date:Apr 30, 1993
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