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Rise of Religious Groups Divides Conservative Town : Tolerance: Influx makes Colorado Springs nation's evangelical capital. Some see threat to city's traditions.

July 06, 1994|LOUIS SAHAGUN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. — At Rampart High School, things have changed so much that 17-year-old Jennifer Fry said it "doesn't seem like a public school any more."

Students drive cars with religious bumper stickers and wear T-shirts emblazoned with depictions of bloody fetuses and religious slogans. One student sobbed in the hallways because a friend had not accepted Jesus Christ.

"In class, it doesn't matter what we're discussing, the 'God thing' is dragged in a lot," said Fry, an intern at a weekly newspaper that writes critically of the growing religious influences here.

"If we're talking about an earthquake in Malaysia, someone will say it's a sign of the Rapture. I call it plate tectonics."

From its beginnings in the mid-1800s as a resort and mining center nestled on the eastern flank of Pikes Peak, Colorado Springs has been a bedrock of conservative values. It is home to Ft. Carson Army Base, the Air Force Academy and the North American Air Defense Command.

But some longtime residents of this town--which prides itself on a tradition of live-and-let-live libertarianism--say they are unnerved by a recent influx of fundamentalist Christian organizations that have made this community of 306,000 people the evangelical capital of the United States.

Now home to 50 national Christian religious groups--half of which arrived during the past decade--Colorado Springs has become a place where a police officer gave a religious pamphlet to a developmentally disabled apartment resident who was disturbing the peace and where children were invited to a carnival, only to be baptized without their parents' knowledge.

Colorado Springs is also the community that spawned the highly controversial Amendment 2, a 1992 statewide initiative barring anti-discrimination laws aimed at protecting homosexuals. Amendment 2 was ruled unconstitutional in state district court and is now on appeal to the state Supreme Court.

Several leaders of the new religious groups say the concerns are unfounded. They came here, they say, because of bargain land and housing prices, spectacular mountain vistas and a community already known for its solid conservative views. Now they say they want to nest peacefully as good neighbors while continuing their evangelical and charity work across the country and around the world.

If anyone suffers from discrimination or intolerance, they say, it is they and their children who are forced to live in a secular society and attend "Godless schools."

However, many of the same people who tangled over Amendment 2 now are entrenched in bitter ideological disputes over what should be accepted as authentic knowledge in schools and practical values in the community.

Such tug-of-wars are taking place in hundreds of communities across the nation. Typically, evangelical Christians say they are trying to live by absolutes derived from Scripture, while liberals say they are merely espousing tolerance for cultural and religious differences and subscribing to the scientific method.

But many of the clashes here over moral, ethical and religious issues are among staunch conservatives who also consider themselves Christians. These disputes are impacting daily life in City Hall and in neighborhoods and schools throughout the community.

"What's happening here is very unfortunate; it's a strange town to live in right now," said attorney Greg Walta, a fundamentalist Christian who has lived here since 1968. He said some of the conservative religious newcomers "stereotype" people who do not believe as they do, a trend he describes as "destructive to our schools and our community."

In local schools, some teachers say they now choose their words carefully. One high school instructor said she prefaces her comments from the lectern with "this is only my personal opinion," to avoid antagonizing pupils who cite biblical passages to dispute her lessons.

The newly arrived Christian leaders are not trying to compete with existing religious groups or stack school boards or the City Council, said Paul Hetrick, vice president of Focus on the Family, a nationally prominent group that relocated from Pomona to Colorado Springs in 1991.

"We are designed to support the ministry of churches rather than compete with them," said Hetrick, whose organization is by far the largest religious group in Colorado Springs, with about 1,200 employees and an income of $94 million last year. As a ministry aimed at bolstering family values via the airwaves and publications, he added, "we are not conversant in local school issues other than looking at newspapers when we get home from work."

But some other leaders and members of other fundamentalist groups here say they believe that there can be no middle ground.

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