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Civil-Liberties Group Seeks To Contest Conservative Activists

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WASHINGTON--Signaling a change of strategy in its efforts to counter the activities of politically conservative Christian activists, People for the American Way, the national civil-liberties advocacy group, will hold community meetings this month in 100 towns and cities in 10 target states.

The meetings, said Arthur J. Kropp, the president of the group, herald the group's move away from a national focus to more of a grassroots emphasis. He said the organization is hoping to build a network of supporters who can challenge conservative Christian activities where they are occurring: at the state and local levels.

"It's a reflection of where the game is being played now,'' Mr. Kropp said. "To deal with the challenge the 'religious right' is posing, you have to have something similar.''

According to the organization, conservative Christian activists, disenchanted with efforts at the national level to enact their social agenda, began to turn to states and localities as early as 1988. By 1992, the organization maintains, such groups were active in 42 states and in the District of Columbia.

Much of their effort has been focused on getting Christian conservatives elected to local school boards and on helping them to become active in state and local Republican Party organizations. (See Education Week, Oct. 7, 1992.)

Mr. Kropp said such groups have been particularly active on education issues, targeting, for example, school health and self-esteem programs, opposing certain trade books and textbooks used in schools, and challenging some critical-thinking programs for promoting what they see as "new age'' religious practices.

"The democratic process is open to all, and our efforts are directed at getting our people into the process,'' Mr. Kropp said.

He said the meetings, scheduled to take place between March 7 and 31, will be a "test to see whether we can pull it off.''

National Meeting Held

The activists at the meetings, many of them representing other organizations, will be discussing their own efforts and what they see as conservative threats to civil liberties in their own states and localities.

For example, in New York City, where a March 11 meeting is planned, one subject of discussion will be upcoming school board races. Mr. Kropp said conservative Christian groups there are fielding a slate of candidates in an effort to capitalize on the furor that arose over efforts to teach young children tolerance for homosexual lifestyles.

The nine other target states are: California, Colorado, Florida, Iowa, Maine, Michigan, Minnesota, Oregon, and Texas.

In addition, Mr. Kropp's group met in Washington last month with 100 national organizations--including the National Education Association, the American Library Association, and the National PTA--to explore ways the group can tap into the memberships and resources of those groups in combating challenges from conservative groups.

Claiming 300,000 members nationwide, People for the American Way was founded in 1980 by the television producer Norman Lear specifically to serve as a counter-voice to the "religious right'' forces.

Currently, the organization has state or regional offices in only four states--California, Florida, New York, and North Carolina--in addition to its national office in Washington.

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