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Abortion Proposition Finds Its Forum in the Churches

In pulpits and fliers, the little-publicized ballot measure's profile is raised among faithful.

November 07, 2005|Jenifer Warren | Times Staff Writer

ROSEVILLE, Calif. — For months, the public debate over Proposition 73 was almost eerily quiet.

Short on funds, neither side could afford to make much public noise about the measure, which would require doctors to notify parents of minors seeking abortions and define the procedure as causing the death of "a child conceived but not yet born."

But as the weeks before election day dwindled, millions of voters began hearing about the initiative in a place not routinely associated with California politics -- their neighborhood church.

So it went on Sunday, when the faithful up and down the state received a dose of propaganda with their prayer books.

At some Catholic parishes around Los Angeles, it came in a glossy "yes on 73" flier slipped into the church bulletin. At Methodist and Lutheran churches in the Bay Area, it was dished up by organizers who set up information tables behind the pews and urged a "no" vote.

And at some evangelical Christian churches, including the Rock in Roseville, a suburb of Sacramento, pastors made time for a two-minute DVD featuring teenage actresses promoting support for the measure.

"The essence of Prop. 73 is to protect young girls from abortion and allow parents to be part of that equation," said Senior Pastor Francis Anfuso at the Rock, where the video rolled on twin screens shown to about 900 weekend churchgoers. "There's a wonderful simplicity to it, and it's definitely a message we wanted to spread here."

Amid the din of television ads targeting other measures facing voters Tuesday, it was easy to miss the mostly grass-roots debate over Proposition 73. The measure contains the most emotional issue on the ballot, but the campaign has been hashed out largely below the radar with few mailers, a smattering of radio ads, some automated phone calls and only a single major-market TV ad.

One unique feature, however, was the campaign inside halls of worship, places usually reserved for reflection and prayer.

"This initiative is really a gut issue," said Barbara O'Connor, a professor of politics and media at Cal State Sacramento. "And in an election where people are being inundated by a drumbeat of ads, this type of more personal, one-on-one contact right in their own church

The payoff won't be clear until Tuesday.

"You can do all this [church organizing], but no fringe effort -- and I include evangelical Christians -- will alter the turnout more than 2% or 3%," said Steve Smith, a veteran strategist and manager of the "No on 73" campaign. "But if the turnout is down around 30 or 35%, the impact of those kinds of movements can be significant."

Secretary of State Bruce McPherson predicts 42% of registered voters will go to the polls.

Proposition 73 would amend the state Constitution to require doctors to notify a parent or guardian at least 48 hours before performing an abortion on a girl younger than 18. Exceptions for medical emergencies could be granted, and a girl could avoid the rule if a judge found she was sufficiently mature to make the decision, or that the abortion was in her best interest.

Doctors would have to report every abortion they performed and could be sued for damages if they failed to notify a parent.

And the definition of abortion that Proposition 73 would insert into the state Constitution would be new. The state's Health and Safety Code already defines abortion as "any medical treatment intended to induce the termination of a pregnancy except for the purpose of producing a live birth."

The initiative, which had a narrow lead in a recent Times poll, is considered a crucial draw for voters by the state Republican Party. GOP leaders are betting that supporters of parental notification, which Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger endorses, would also vote yes on the other ballot proposals he backs -- none of which is winning, many polls show.

Republican officials' strategy includes bringing in a national consultant to help court religious conservatives: Gary Marx, former director of the Virginia Christian Coalition and a key player in wooing evangelicals during President Bush's reelection campaign.

In an interview, Marx said his organizers have focused on "mega-churches" in heavily Republican areas of inland California but also have been welcomed in urban African American and Latino churches. He said Crenshaw Christian Center had accepted 20,000 inserts to distribute with church bulletins.

"The message of Proposition 73 is common sense, pro-parent and easy to communicate," said Marx, who hopes to reach 5 million voters. "We've been extremely encouraged by the response that people of faith have shown."

Opponents of Proposition 73 have been busy in church as well. California Church Impact, which represents 4,000 congregations of about 1.5 million Protestants, is telling its faithful that the measure will not encourage healthy family communication and threatens the state's most vulnerable teens.

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