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Off the Campaign Trail, Bennett Still Stumps for Virtues

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Washington--Former Secretary of Education William J. Bennett, who recently took himself out of contention for the 1996 Presidential race, nonetheless was one of the most well-received speakers at the Christian Coalition's annual conference here.

Greeted by shouts of "Run, Bill" and "Run in '96," Mr. Bennett said he was "just not up for running for President this time. I've got some other things to do."

He then launched into a passionate talk about the "coarsening of American society," in which media depictions of violence have reached new depths and parental responsibility continues to decline.

However, he appeared to reject stronger federal action to curb media violence.

"I don't think the solution is Congress," Mr. Bennett said. "If there is one institution that could make the output of Hollywood even worse, it is Congress."

Mr. Bennett struck a moderate tone on the issue of gay rights, a frequent target of conservative Christians.

"I understand the aversion to homosexuality," he said. "But if you look in terms of damage to the children of America, you cannot compare the homosexual movement, the gay-rights movement, what that has done in damage, to what divorce has done to this society."

For many Christians, he argued, homosexuals are a more abstract, distant social target than "the breakdown of marital commitment and fidelity."

In addition to a session on outcomes-based education, the Christian Coalition meeting also featured sessions on school choice and local school board elections.

In the school-choice session, the participants heard from Mayor Bret Schundler of Jersey City, N.J., who is pushing to institute school vouchers for the city's low-income residents. (See related story.)

"I don't think it's the government's job to tell parents you must put your child somewhere the statistics indicate they are not going to graduate," he said.

In the session on school boards, Shelly Uscinski told how she won election recently to the Merrimac, N.H., board on a "back to basics" platform.

Ms. Uscinski said she was confused when she and another candidate became the subject of rumors that "we were members of the Christian Coalition."

"I thought the Christian Coalition was some sort of religion, and I said, 'No, No. I'm Catholic,"' she recalled. But she credited coalition members with helping her win by just three votes.

Like many conventions, the Christian Coalition's conference offered exhibits.

  • Participants could stop by the booth of the American Center for Law and Justice, coalition founder Pat Robertson's legal organization, which has been at the center of the storm over issues such as graduation prayers. They could pick up a booklet titled "Students' Rights and the Public Schools," which emphasizes students' rights to carry Bibles, distribute religious literature, and decide on voluntary prayers in public schools.
  • Another booth provided information about Heritage Schools, a proposed network of nonprofit, "franchised" Christian schools that would offer a classical curriculum grounded in "scriptural doctrine and discipline."

The Laredo, Tex.-based group promises to bring franchise benefits, such as staff training, financial assistance, and an on-line computer network, to its member schools.

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