ATGLEN, Pa. — First-grade teacher Diane Palmer walked hesitantly to the microphone at the front of the packed school auditorium. Five members of the school board, whose back-to-basics philosophy had already cut guidance and anti-drug programs, sat impassively on the stage as she begged them to abandon a plan to limit instruction to a board-approved curriculum.
"We cannot restrict teachers this way," Palmer said. "I want to be a mind-stretcher, not a mind-stuffer. Please do not pass this policy. Please put the word 'trust' back into my contract."
As she walked away, about half the crowd stood and applauded. A handful of others hissed. It was another engagement in the culture war.
From San Diego County to New York City, the religious right has turned the public schools into the primary battleground in a divisive conflict over the most fundamental issues of national identity. At issue is nothing less than what values should be taught to the next generation of Americans.
Conservative Christian parents have aligned themselves with religious-right political organizations to take control of local school boards--more than 2,000 of them, a leader of one religious-right group claims. Among the opponents are liberal and moderate parents; the National Education Assn., the nation's largest union; and other like-minded organizations.
A Times examination of school disputes across the country and interviews with dozens of participants found that conflicts are typically rooted in local disputes over books, curriculum--particularly sex education--and homosexuality. The religious right opposes teaching materials that go beyond basic instruction and aim explicitly to improve self-esteem or to change behavior.
In Vista, Calif., for example, sparks flew when the majority on the school board introduced creationism to the school curriculum. In central Florida, hundreds of people protested when the conservative-dominated school board banned a Head Start program on grounds that young children should stay home with their mothers.
The soldiers in these battles are local residents, but the generals are from national organizations.
"What began as a local dispute that could be mediated gets polarized into a dispute that is national in scope," said James Davison Hunter, a sociology professor at the University of Virginia.
Propelling the schools into the forefront of the nation's culture war has been the changes in the American family. Almost by default, many schools have taken on sensitive responsibilities previously handled by families--from feeding children breakfast to teaching them tolerance.
Conservative Christian parents often say they believe that the schools have no business in that territory. They want the schools to teach skills and facts--just the basics.
"In schools these days, the moral architecture of the soul is being neglected or ignored or perverted on instruction, centered on issues like self-esteem or sexuality, that is antithetical to the parents' wishes," said Ralph Reed, executive director of broadcaster Pat Robertson's Christian Coalition. "That phenomenon is combined with the fact that parents feel they're losing control of their children's upbringing."
The religious right's foot soldiers are from all over America. The recruits are predominantly white, middle-class parents. They harbor strong religious beliefs that clash with the "liberal values" that, in their view, dominate the public schools.
Schools have been an ideological battleground for decades, but there is no precedent for the breadth of the religious right's current campaign. "It is much wider-spread than it ever was in the past," said NEA Vice President Bob Chase. "It is a new phenomenon to have networking as thorough as this."
One of the war rooms for the religious right, the headquarters of Citizens for Excellence in Education, is tucked away in a modest office in a strip mall off the Costa Mesa Freeway in Santa Ana, Calif. Inside, Robert Simonds, with a well-used Bible opened to the Book of Leviticus on his desk, talked of his decision one night five years ago to form a nationwide network to help conservative Christians take over school boards.
During 13 hours in a San Francisco motel, he wrote the booklet "How to Elect Christians to Public Office." It has become the war manual for his movement, which now has 1,550 chapters fighting against the NEA, the organization's chief nemesis.
"It's a clash of cultural views, a clash of religious beliefs, a clash of traditional values," he said. "More than all of those things, it's a clash of power."
Simonds, a preacher who left the pulpit to teach and then to form his political network, takes his campaign on the road every other week, holding 70 to 80 banquets a year to rally the troops. His staff prepares mountains of literature that advocates returning to the basics in public schools and issuing vouchers enabling parents to send their children to private schools.