In the 1960s, Americans United for Separation of Church and State grew to 125 chapters around the country as it fought prayers in public schools and state aid to Catholic schools.
Success was almost fatal. As victories were won in the courts and Congress, Americans United chapters began to drop away in the 1970s, dwindling to only four last year. Not even the appearance of the Rev. Jerry Falwell's Moral Majority in the 1980s, when resurgent conservatives revived the fights over classroom prayers and the teaching of creationism in schools, brought Americans United back.
Americans United at their Silver Spring, Md., offices and new, liberal groups such as People For the American Way found that they waged the ideological battle best at the national level, where the Moral Majority and other conservative religious groups were most active.
Now however, with the rapid grass-roots political gains won by Pat Robertson's 4-year-old Christian Coalition, Americans United has decided to revive its own grass-roots network of local chapters.
In January, Americans United hired Bunnie Reidel, a religious organizer from La Puente, to build up a system of chapters and strengthen relations with like-minded religious groups. The organization now has functioning groups in 16 states, stoked by anxieties over the religious right, such as its victories in school board elections.
The fourth California chapter is expected to be formed next week in the San Fernando Valley.
"Calls are coming in so rapidly I don't need to go looking for people who want to organize chapters," Reidel said in a telephone interview this week from American United's newly relocated offices in Washington, D.C. While directing the Southern California chapter of the Religious Coalition for Abortion Rights from 1989 through 1993, Reidel developed a roster of 500 supportive clergy.
In California, the San Francisco chapter of Americans United had remained active through the years. But Reidel said new life was pumped into the moribund San Diego chapter and a Fresno chapter has been started.
After conferring with longtime Americans United member Harry Schwartzbart of Chatsworth, she backed the effort to create a new chapter in the Valley, starting with an organizational meeting Wednesday night in North Hills. At least one other Los Angeles chapter is contemplated.
Americans United has a long way to go to match its rivals' organizational strength, however.
The Christian Coalition boasted of more than 1,000 chapters nationwide two weeks ago at a "Road to Victory '94" conference in Washington, which heard talks by Dan Quayle, Bill Bennett and other leading Republicans.
"They've (Christian Coalition) done a phenomenal job," said Reidel, who belongs to the United Methodist Church.
In California alone, the Christian Coalition has grown from 35 chapters in early 1992 to about 60 today, according to state director Sara DiVito Hardman of Tarzana. "Between 35,000 and 40,000 people belong to the state or national organization or both," Hardman said.
She said the Christian Coalition tries "to affect public policy with moral values" through voter guides, identification of potentially "pro-family" voters and influence on legislators.
As a religious nonprofit group, Christian Coalition would risk losing its tax-exempt status if it were to openly endorse candidates rather than sticking to pronouncements on issues and distributing results of surveys on candidate positions. But it's no secret which candidates it prefers anyway, political analysts say.
Reidel contends that she heard Hardman tell a California caucus meeting at the recent Christian Coalition conference in Washington, "If we can get 50,000 paid members in California, we can start supporting candidates."
Hardman denies saying that. "What I said was that if we get 50,000 paying members in California, we can get the ears of the legislators because they pay attention to numbers," Hardman said in an interview. "That's something I've said many times."
Reidel said her notes showed otherwise. "Four of us moles there heard her say that," Reidel said, referring to three other Americans United staffers present at the caucus.
One of them, Alan Reinach, religious liberty director for the Seventh-day Adventist Church's western regional headquarters in Thousand Oaks, said this week that he thought Hardman's words were close to what Reidel reported. "It sounds right to me," he said.
Along that line, Americans United officials said that part of their purpose is to uncover what they call misinformation and deceptive tactics used by the Christian Coalition and similar groups, such as James Dobson's Focus on the Family, Concerned Women for America, the American Center for Law and Justice and the American Family Assn.