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Conservatives' Social-Issue Agenda Targets Schools

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Washington

Religious and social conservatives--both those in Congress and those who lobby it--will be pushing in the coming months for action on a raft of so-called social-issue legislation that could have a dramatic impact on schools.

Among the items on the agenda are prayer in public schools, tuition vouchers, and sex education. Some conservatives even consider the repeal of the Goals 2000: Educate America Act and the dismantling of the Education Department to be items on their social agenda, which they say is an effort to promote "pro-family," locally controlled public policy.

"The expectation is ... not just in the next 100 days but however long it takes, that Congress will focus on the social issues that really drove the election" last November, Kristi Hamrick, a spokeswoman for the Family Research Council, a conservative advocacy and research organization, said in an interview.

But proponents say they do not intend to hold the Republican Party hostage by forcing G.O.P. lawmakers to enact a specific agenda.

Ralph Reed, the executive director of the Christian Coalition, kick-started the debate last week with the release of his organization's blueprint for social-issues legislation, the "Contract with the American Family." Modeled after the House Republicans' "Contract with America," which shaped the agenda in the first months of the 104th Congress, the document sets forth 10 items for action.

Other conservative organizations--including Concerned Women for America, the Traditional Values Coalition, and the Christian Action Network--have drawn up similar plans.

Congressional conservatives, many involved in a new House "family caucus," plan to lead the charge on Capitol Hill.

Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich, R-Ga., made a surprise visit to Mr. Reed's news conference here last week and pledged a floor vote on each item. And Rep. Tom DeLay, R-Tex., the majority whip, predicted they would pass.

Sen. Phil Gramm, R-Tex., a candidate for the 1996 Republican Presidential nomination, also offered support.

Politically Problematic?

At his news conference, Mr. Reed tried to allay fears that his constituency will insist that the Republicans enact its agenda regardless of the political cost to the party.

"These proposals are the 10 suggestions, not the Ten Commandments," Mr. Reed said.

But some observers said the religious conservatives' agenda could cause problems for the Republicans.

Charles O. Jones, a scholar at the Brookings Institution, said that the "legislative pipeline is so damn full" that it will be difficult for social issues to claim a high priority.

Social-issues provisions attached as riders to other bills, Mr. Jones said, could provoke Presidential vetoes and divide the party.

"If [Republican leaders] really want the stem, they don't want these branches on there that will invite a veto," he said. "It's the problem for the Republicans that the President has with his more liberal wing."

At least one Republican leader, Rep. Bill Goodling of Pennsylvania, the chairman of the House Committee on Economic and Educational Opportunities, has said he does not plan to include social issues on his agenda.

Such matters as budget issues and vocational-education legislation are "pretty much taking up our time and then some," said Cheri Jacobus, a committee spokeswoman.

Agenda Items

Among other action, religious and social conservatives are calling for:

  • An amendment to the U.S. Constitution "restoring religious equality." Such an amendment, Mr. Reed said, would be intended to allow "non-denominational student-initiated or citizen-initiated prayer in non-compulsory settings," including schools.
  • No legislation has been introduced, but Rep. Ernest Jim Istook Jr., R-Okla., is heading a House task force exploring the issue. Rep. Henry J. Hyde, R-Ill., who chairs the House Judiciary Committee, plans hearings around the country this summer on public prayer.

Critics, including dozens of religious groups, say such an amendment is a backhanded effort to wither the First Amendment's establishment clause, which forbids state-sponsored religion. Moreover, they say, U.S. Supreme Court rulings already permit private prayer in the public schools and elsewhere.

Eliminating the federal Education Department--a proposal that is being tackled by Republicans on various fronts--and enacting a school-voucher demonstration program.

Nearly identical legislation has been introduced in both the House and the Senate that would provide $30 million for a voucher demonstration program, and the House is exploring vouchers for the District of Columbia schools. (See related story .)

Most observers say the G.O.P.-controlled Congress is likely to show unprecedented support for such provisions. However, such measures are likely to face filibusters in the Senate and veto threats from President Clinton.

And public school groups will fight hard against the use of federal money for private school tuition--an idea that Mr. Clinton has called "a big mistake."(See education. The Traditional Values Coalition and a spokesman for Rep. Mel Hancock, R-Mo., said that Mr. Gingrich has pledged House hearings on the alleged influence of homosexuals in public schools.

Last year, Mr. Hancock unsuccessfully sought to attach language to the Elementary and Secondary Education Act that would have cut off federal funds to school districts that portray homosexuality as "a positive life style alternative."

Conservatives also want to eliminate the Title X family-planning program, which provides money to school districts for sex education and school-based health clinics.

A "parental rights act." Rep. Steve Largent, R-Okla., and Rep. Mike Parker, D-Miss., are drafting such legislation, which would "clarify that 'the right of parents to direct the upbringing of their children' includes overseeing their children's education, health care, discipline, and religious training," according to the Christian Coalition's contract.

The House has already voted to require written permission from parents for students to participate in federal surveys.

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