More than 200 ninth-graders filled the auditorium of Charlestown High School in inner-city Boston to hear another presentation on sex. The students were overwhelmingly black and Hispanic, the teachers and administrators almost uniformly white. It looked like an episode of ABC television's Dangerous Minds, but with acne.
If any teachers harbored thoughts of ditching the assembly and hiding in the teachers' lounge, school nurse Esther Splaine quickly reeducated them. Their presence was required, too.
On the stage were two doctors from the Massachusetts Physicians Resource Council, part of the Massachusetts Family Institute--one of the leaders in a growing group of state-level family policy councils. Lately, these state groups are showing themselves to be effective advocates, not just minor league counterparts to heavy-hitting Washington groups.
The doctors waited nervously while a janitor searched for the switch to turn the stage lights off so the overhead projector could be seen. It took a few minutes, but then someone else remembered the switch was in a room backstage--a locked room. No one had the key, and no one even knew who should have it. Finally the kid running the sound sighed, climbed atop chairs and boxes to scale a wall of the roofless room, and dropped down into it. He flipped the switch, then climbed out and returned to the sound board.
Dimming the lights didn't help much, though. The ineffective shushing of the principals and teachers was drowned out by raucous students, already responding with Beavis and Butthead giggles to the prospect of seeing more condoms on cucumbers.
Mrs. Splaine, a compact black woman and one of the few staff or faculty members at CHS who lives in the Charlestown section of greater Boston, went to the microphone. She was the one who brought in this group of nervous doctors, and she was determined that they be heard. They were bringing something more than the usual safe-sex message, a message Mrs. Splaine sees as sloppy social policy and an arrogant dismissal of her students'--her students'--potential.
When Mrs. Splaine learned in church of the Massachusetts Physicians Resource Council and its clear presentation of the medical consequences of sex before marriage and the falsity of "safe sex," she was heartened; these willing doctors could fill a void in the lives and education of CHS students.
Without anger, but without much misguided patience, either, Mrs. Splaine brought order to the room. "You sit down and pay attention," she said into the microphone. "These people have something to tell you. And it's something you're not going to hear anywhere else."
The auditorium grew quiet. The students were ready to listen.
Family policy councils are bringing the fight for families home to the states. Even as Washington politicos have talked of decentralization, family policy groups have lived it, opening offices and initiatives in the states. Their cup is running over: In recent days, the Rocky Mountain Family Council has sent a divorce reform bill to the Colorado state legislature; the Mississippi Family Council has released its annual "Mississippi Index of Leading Cultural Indicators" and a television spot developed as a pro-fatherhood public service ad by the Washington (state) Family Council has won a PSA Emmy award.
"All politics are local," says Steve Knudson, state and local affairs coordinator for the Washington, D.C.-based Family Research Council. "When you get right down to it, the states are in a far better position to deal with almost every issue we're concerned with: divorce reform, welfare reform, abortion, education, gambling issues. Just as Thomas Jefferson said, 'The states are the laboratories of democracy.' That's where the experimentation--the search for answers--should take place."
Matt Daniels heads the Massachusetts Family Institute, and he says Boston--and Tallahassee and Oklahoma City and Sante Fe--are closer to the problems and to the solutions than Washington is. "If you think about the things that government does that really impact most people, you'll realize that most of the real action is at the state and local level," he says. "Ask yourself this: Who polices your streets? Who runs your schools? Whose decisions have the most day-to-day effect on your life?"
Mr. Daniels is a tall, intense 30-year-old, a native New Yorker who earned college and law degrees through scholarships and guts (determination may be the polite way to say that). The determination is still there--he grins and admits that his wife, a physician, has developed progressive signals to tell him when he's lecturing friends, acquaintances, and even strangers. First comes a touch on the arm, and finally a gently asked (but to-the-point), "Have you had too much coffee?"
But it takes that level of intensity to battle day after day in Boston, the former Puritan home that often seems to be a leftist camp in the culture wars.
He's been told by other family policy activists that he's out of his mind for trying to accomplish anything in what they see as a spiritual wasteland. He's been told he's wasting his time. "But if we fight this battle everywhere except where the enemy is the strongest, how can we expect to win?" he asks. "We can win here, just as we can win anywhere," he insists.
There have been victories in many states. Three examples:
**red_square** In Ohio, gambling proponents outspent the family policy group Ohio Roundtable nearly 10 to 1, but the gambling initiative they pushed was voted down almost 2 to 1 in November.
**red_square** Next week, Pennsylvania's Family Institute and a diverse anti-gambling coalition (it includes churches and the Sierra Club) will release a report titled "The Case Against Casino Gambling," effectively preempting gambling interests that have been open about wanting to bring casinos to the state. They've won a pledge from Republican Gov. Tom Ridge not to sign any gambling legislation that doesn't include provisions for a statewide referendum.
**red_square** And in North Carolina, the Family Policy Council won a decade-long battle when the state legislature passed a law requiring public schools to teach abstinence until marriage.
But success can be fleeting or incomplete. MFI's Mr. Daniels points out that a change at the national public-policy level is meaningless if state- and street-level ideologues stand in the way of change: "Even if Republicans had won the White House in 1996, we here in Massachusetts would still be facing life with [liberal Republican] Gov. William Weld, who says he will honor out-of-state gay marriages just as soon as they're ruled legal. William Weld's policies have a much more immediate and direct impact on our lives."
North Carolina is a good example of how wins do not always trickle down, and how state-level policy groups are in a better position to do something about that. When the abstinence-until-marriage law was signed, much of the educational establishment dug in its heels, says North Carolina Family Policy Council member Ann Frazier: "Some of the educators did not want to cooperate and they've tried to circumvent the law."
Mrs. Frazier notes that teachers continue to use the pro-"safer-sex" manual Successfully Teaching Middle School Health, and the state Department of Public Instruction has failed to send out guidelines to school districts explaining how to bring in abstinence-until-marriage curricula. But NCFPC and its ally North Carolina Conservatives United have refused to give up the win. They are working with the legislature to monitor school systems, and they have a county-by-county listing of which schools are in compliance and which are not. They're also reviewing abstinence curricula, something state officials have so far failed to do.
One state legislator pulled Mrs. Frazier aside recently and told her to "keep monitoring this thing--that's the only way this law is going to get carried out."
And state-level groups are able take on a much wider range of issues than do their Washington counterparts. Here are a few examples:
**red_square** Florida Family Council president Mark Merrill is calling for the elimination of the public school teachers' tenure system. With Op-Ed pieces declaring, "We build schools to educate children, not to provide jobs for bad teachers," the Florida Family Council is nearly alone in defending the state education secretary who voiced the idea. Mr. Merrill is carefully and calmly making arguments that newspaper editorial boards across the state are finding hard to refute.
"Firing a teacher can take two to three years and $20,000 to $60,000 in legal fees to go through all the hearings required," Mr. Merrill points out. More often, he said, bad teachers are merely transferred from schools with active, vocal parents. They usually end up in low-income and minority schools, condemning students to poor education.
**red_square** In South Carolina, the Palmetto Family Council bulwarked Republican Gov. David Beasley's attempt to put a stop to the state government's condom giveaway program. Last year, the state bought 4.2 million condoms, at a cost of $279,000, to give away at clinics and schools. But Gov. Beasley, citing "moral grounds," called a temporary halt to the program in mid-January, and he has told the Department of Health and Environmental Control to study the program to see if it does more harm than good.
The usual criticism is coming from the usual quarters: "What's immoral is withholding effective, inexpensive, accessible birth and disease control for a population that needs it," said a Planned Parenthood official.
**red_square** The Kansas Family Research Institute is taking on historical revisionism. The "Truth in History" bill was introduced in the 1995 and 1996 legislatures. It passed overwhelmingly in the House in 1996, though it died in a Senate committee. This should be the year for the bill, which will require schools to post and even teach such controversial documents as the Declaration of Independence, the U.S. Constitution, the Kansas Constitution, and even George Washington's Farewell Address. And yes, there's grumbling.
"When I learned history back in the mid-to-late '50s, it was the history of white men," commented the Wichita school district's social studies "teaching specialist" Charles Ekrut. But, armed with a Harvard study showing that history in textbooks is watered-down, bland, and incomplete, legislators are making another attempt to get the original documents into the classrooms.
Other issues the KFRI is working on include a ban on mandatory payroll deductions for political purposes, increasing the amount of the dependent exemption for state income tax, and strengthening the charter school law. (It was passed in 1994, but because of weaknesses in it, no charter schools have opened.)
The common issues that many state-level policy groups are tackling include divorce reform and state bans on same-sex marriage. The U.S. Congress, for all its bluster, can actually do little about either issue. The Defense of Marriage Act, signed by President Clinton last year, is important, but it does nothing more than say that no state can be forced to accept same-sex marriages from other states. That means the real battles will take place in state houses.
The Bay State's Mr. Daniels makes another point about getting out of Washington: The nation's political capital is no longer an intellectual capital or a cultural capital. The new centers of thought and trend are the cities and the universities.
"Christians have given up on those," he contends. "During the time of the early church, when Christianity was ascendent, Christians were concentrating in the cities--Christianity was an urban phenomenon. In fact, the word pagan comes from the Latin word paganos, which means 'villager.' 'Villager' was synonymous with worshiping the old gods. Now, that paradigm has been reversed. Christians have left the cities and the cultural centers, and the pagan values are ascendent."
The homosexual movement seems to have taken its tactics from the early church, Mr. Daniels says. "Homosexuals are less than 2 percent of the population, but they're able to set the national agenda because they're in the cities and in the cultural centers. They're in the universities where the educational establishment is, and where its leaders are being made. The homosexuals are where the entertainment industry is."
Christians also must retake the cultural centers, he contends, and that means not giving up any cities such as Boston and Detroit and Los Angeles. It also means reclaiming the intellectual centers; Harvard, Yale, Princeton, and Dartmouth were all started as seminaries, he points out.
"A lot of the issues we're struggling with right now--euthanasia, same-sex marriage, abortion--are all the outworkings of intellectual battles that were lost a century ago," he says. "Forces hostile to faith and faith-based values have succeeded in capturing the academic strongholds." Teachers' schools, in particular, are like "cultural DNA," replicating and spreading ideology to the local level.
That kind of ideology was evident at Charlestown High School on this cold winter afternoon.
One girl in particular, a pretty black girl with cornrow braids on the second row, was becoming agitated: She wasn't hearing what she had expected to hear. Steve Jamison presented the cold medical facts about sexually transmitted diseases and other consequences of premature sexual activity.
Unable to hold back during the question-and-answer session, the girl stood and said to Dr. Jamison, "You've told us all about what doesn't work to protect us from all these things.What I wanna know is why haven't you told us what will protect us during sex?" The doctor responded, "There isn't anything. If there was, I would tell you."
Esther Splaine rose from her seat in the front row, walked onto the stage and took the microphone from Dr. Jamison. "He's telling you the truth, honey," she told the girl. "Remember a couple of years ago, people came in here and talked about 'safe sex'? And then, the next year they came in, they talked about 'safer sex'? Did you ever wonder about why they changed it? It's because 'safe sex' is a lie."
Nurse Splaine told the story of a girl she'd seen in her office that week, who was pregnant but swore she and her boyfriend had used a condom: "There's no way to protect yourself, and that's why I've brought these people in."
In the days after the doctors' presentation, five girls walked into Esther Splaine's office, declaring their intention to stop having sex. A Spanish-speaking teacher has asked the nurse if she might translate that presentation, so her Hispanic students could better understand it.
Mr. Daniels' wife Pat (short for Patience) is now working with Mrs. Splaine to start an abstinence support club. And last week, Mrs. Splaine faxed a letter to Mr. Daniels, signed by the school's principal, a white liberal woman who had been dubious about the no-safe-sex message, recommending the program for other public schools.
"Because we operate at the local level, we're able to build bridges with people like Esther Splaine," says Mr. Daniels. "She's a one-woman army, operating within the Massachusetts public schools. But she needs ammunition and supplies so she can do what God is calling her to do. We provided the professional research, the professional expertise, the physicians. She provided the kids who needed to be reached. An organization in a distant capital, Washington, could never have given her that kind of help."