Just a few miles down Interstate 5 from South County, the issue of the Christian right and how it affects public education drew national attention to north San Diego County in 1993, when the community of Vista elected a Christian right majority to its five-member board.
After rancorous debates over school prayer, federally and state-funded "free breakfast" programs some construed as welfare, and, of course, abortion and creationism, the citizens of Vista took the unusual step of throwing the Christian right members out of office.
A recall election unseated two of the three, while a third member chose to step down. In its wake lay a community so divided over educational policies that many say the wounds have yet to heal three years later.
Some local critics are openly fearful that the lessons of Vista may be lost on Orange County and that such a scenario may be playing itself out in Fullerton, the Saddleback Valley and Garden Grove.
For the Record
Los Angeles Times Saturday October 26, 1996 Orange County Edition Part A Page 5 Metro Desk 2 inches; 40 words Type of Material: Correction
School board elections--In a story Friday about Christian right candidates seeking election to school boards in Orange County, Marcia L. Birch, 46, was left off a list of candidates endorsed by the Saddleback Valley Education Assn. The association is not endorsing Sandie Gonzales, 51.
In Garden Grove, seven candidates are vying for three vacant seats in a campaign in which the menu of issues has ranged from abortion to physician-assisted suicide, angering a bevy of parents and teachers, who question what either really has to do with the public education of minors.
Both the Pro-Life Political Action Committee and the Orange County Christian Coalition have immersed themselves in the race, polling each and every candidate on all of their views regarding, among other things, abortion, homosexuality and curfews for teenagers. The Garden Grove teachers' association, meanwhile, has endorsed those who oppose the Christian right.
A flock of right-leaning Republicans, including state Assembly Speaker Curt Pringle (R-Garden Grove) and state Sen. Rob Hurtt (R-Garden Grove), are endorsing 36-year-old Kerri Weisenberger and 43-year-old Linda Paulsen.
Conservative board members Terry Cantrell and Bob Harden also have endorsed the two newcomers, as has the Education Alliance of Orange County. Cantrell is an administrator of a private school belonging to Bethel Baptist Church of Santa Ana that includes Hardin's children as students and where Paulsen's children were enrolled until recently. Weisenberger has "home-schooled" two of her own children, in what's becoming a popular trend among many Christian parents who want to avoid public schools.
Paulsen's and Weisenberger's opponents argue that the pair's religious ideology will act as a hindrance to the board's efforts to address educational policy. With Harden and Cantrell already seated, a Christian-right majority could immediately transform Garden Grove, as it did Vista, should either newcomer be elected.
"I'm not worried about people finding out I'm a Christian, but what's the parallel?" Paulsen said. "I don't advocate religion in school. I am a conservative educator, but I don't consider myself far right. I am not a right-wing wacko fanatic."
Paulsen said she even takes issue with some of the planks in the platform of the Tustin-based Education Alliance, which promotes a back-to-basics curriculum tinged with "Americanism."
Suzanne SooHoo, an assistant professor of education at Chapman University, said the religious right--as well as the liberal left--have a place on school boards. But they should not use their elected office as a bully pulpit.
The problem is, as SooHoo sees it, that "impassioned advocacy is not necessarily an informed advocacy."
"The conflict is the right to be who they are and what is right for children," SooHoo said. "Schools are a very complex institution with multiple pieces that need to be looked at holistically. You can't take one thing out of context and crusade it, with a blind allegiance to a larger cause."
SooHoo said school board members must not forget their charge, to represent students who often come from differing ethnic, religious and cultural backgrounds.
Garden Grove school board incumbents warn that if the conservative candidates win a majority in their city, almost $20 million in federally funded programs, including free breakfast and lunch programs and counseling services, could be eliminated, just as they were temporarily in Vista.
"I'm afraid they'll begin to micro-manage and target and intimidate selected teachers for resignations and removal," said John Holm, who's running on a three-person ticket with the two incumbents in an effort to take votes from Weisenberger and Paulsen. "I think that will be anybody that doesn't agree with them."
Holm said that he and other candidates have even been called "un-Christian" by Paulsen and Weisenberger supporters.
"It doesn't make sense," he said. "We're all Christians. . . . We're just not Christian enough for them."
Times staff writer Rene Lynch and correspondents Kimberly Brower and Mimi Ko Cruz contributed to this report.
* SADDLEBACK VALLEY UNIFIED: Seven candidates are campaigning for three seats. B3