California delegate David O'Neal, a grandfatherly African-American dressed in a crisp khaki sport coat, stepped to the microphone. He moved that fellow delegates affirm keeping "under God" in the Pledge of Allegiance. A sea of surly eyes fixed upon him, Mr. O'Neal continued with a temperate, even voice.
Like the other 9,000 delegates to this month's National Education Association (NEA) "representative assembly" in New Orleans, Mr. O'Neal is one part thick-skinned activist. NEA delegates are peer-elected and require a passionate commitment to work for their cause. But unlike most NEA delegates, Mr. O'Neal's version of the cause includes a view of public education that reverences God.
"As a patriotic person and a person of faith," he told the NEA assembly on July 5, "I believe this body should take pride to acknowledge that we are one nation under God." And, after all, added Mr. O'Neal, the U.S. Senate voted unanimously in March to keep the language.
But this is not the United States Senate. This is the annual convocation of the biggest public-school teachers union, whose representatives constantly must be shhh'd by their president, former Illinois school teacher Reg Weaver, like a principal quieting rowdy students. This is the world's "largest democratic deliberative body," out-girthing even the Southern Baptist Convention's yearly meeting.
After his speech in favor of affirming the pledge, all eyes shifted to NEA president Weaver, perched overlooking the delegate ocean on the three-tiered rostrum of red, white, and blue bunting and massive photos of smiling children. Mr. Weaver selected delegates for the ensuing debate; first up, a Marylander, who complained that Mr. O'Neal's proposal hampered "diversity of religious belief," which "should be a private matter."
"Thank you, buddy," Mr. Weaver said, before calling the number of another podium microphone and pressing a button. Three TV cameramen stationed on the convention floor brought into focus the new speaker, who insisted that taking a stand on keeping God in the Pledge of Allegiance would "distract from our secular purpose, education."
Mr. Weaver pressed another button. The assembly's jumbotrons showed a delegate intoning, "Might does not make right. The majority cannot bludgeon the minority!" even as the NEA's majority bludgeoned Mr. O'Neal.
Just one day earlier, during the NEA's Fourth of July celebration, executive director John Wilson claimed that the Declaration of Independence was NEA's "secular Scripture" with these core values: "love of freedom, our commitment to liberty, and our tolerance of dissent." But on July 5, delegates lined up to assail Mr. O'Neal's motion on the pledge. Mr. Weaver pressed one more button-"Fellow delegates!" a male teacher huffed in opposition to affirming God in the pledge, "what is right is not always popular and what is popular is not always right!"
By now, Mr. O'Neal saw the writing on the jumbotron. His "under God" motion was buried six feet under in rhetoric.
"Mr. President," a sad voice said. "Mr. President."
It was David O'Neal's. "I withdraw my resolution."
Soon several delegates circled the defeated Mr. O'Neal amid the convention aisles. "You are trying to force God on me and I don't appreciate it!" one man in a Hawaiian shirt and baggy shorts yelled, pointing his finger in Mr. O'Neal's face. An older man with gray hair pulled back in a ponytail nodded in agreement.
"I am simply encouraging the assembly to take a stand for leaving God in the Pledge of Allegiance," Mr. O'Neal, a professing Christian, told the angry men, "and I will continue doing so."
Judy Bruns, a seven-year delegate from Ohio and committed pro-lifer, has seen her share of similar exchanges on the floor of the NEA national assembly. She and fellow Ohio delegate David Kaiser watched the NEA promote abortion as "reproductive choice" in public schools until, finally, two years ago, they helped found the Conservative Educators Caucus (CEC). The group hopes to surface what they believe to be a dormant bloc of conservative teachers within the NEA rank-and-file who currently may be too intimidated by NEA's establishment to speak.
This year, CEC came out swinging for the first time.
Mr. Kaiser attended an advance January meeting of the NEA's resolutions committee, where he stated that many union members "feel disenfranchised by the leadership and policies," and added, "They have seen and heard themselves referred to as 'right-wing radicals,' 'the religious right,' 'religious fanatics,' and worse. They have been laughed at, mocked, and shouted down by delegates at the [national representative assembly] who claim to value 'diversity.'"
He said, "Many of them are dedicated, award-winning, and very effective classroom teachers who are trying to balance their professional lives with their belief systems." The 54-year-old Roman Catholic thinks many of the NEA's conservative members just don't have the time required to be involved in the union's politics. "That's the way the majority of people I know feel. They don't want to be involved with politics. They want to teach kids. Most of them are family people and they just don't have time for this."
Mr. Kaiser and Ms. Bruns sat with the 1,200-member California delegation as NEA president Weaver opened the festivities with a promise to get his members "riled up" against President Bush's education plan, No Child Left Behind. He called for "defeating the privatizers and voucherites," adding, "We are all at risk!"
Times have been tough for the NEA establishment lately, which bristled regularly during the convention over Education secretary Ron Paige, himself once the superintendent of Houston's public-school system. Mr. Paige steals the limelight with ideas for vouchers and privatization, notions the NEA's website labels unsafe.
"Our critics ... say that NEA is focused on keeping the status quo," added Mr. Weaver in his address. "They will say that NEA isn't for anything. They will say that NEA is against everything!" Mr. Weaver then urged delegates to make use of massive computer and phone banks set up just outside the convention hall to flood their state and national elected officials with complaints. Delegates sent more than 13,000 e-mails and made more than 1,000 phone calls. They wrote postcards to the Bush administration asking for changes in No Child Left Behind.
Delegates to NEA's national gathering come in all shapes, sizes, and inclinations. Purple hair? Yes. Multiple body piercings? Yes. Two delegates walked hand-in-hand outside the convention hall-one bearded and wearing a Hawaiian shirt, while his partner wore a big cowboy hat to accentuate his potbelly.
Convention-wide microphones were used from time to time for sexual pronouncements. "I am a gay American of English, Irish, and Czechoslovakian descent, and I am an American!" said one man during the assembly's Fourth of July celebration, as delegates clapped happily. Then a woman announced, "I am a proud, peace-loving lesbian, and I am an American!" More appreciative applause.
Sissy Jochman of Pennsylvania, a wife and mother of two boys, crafted "New Business Item 15," known in the NEA vernacular as "NBI 15," and then unearthed 50 delegates willing to sign her petition to submit NBI 15 for convention-floor debate. On July 5, Mrs. Jochman faced the huge congress and formally motioned NBI 15 for delegate consideration. It came between NBI 14, which sought to "develop model language that would protect [NEA pension] benefits" (it passed), and NBI 16, which favored "reversing the redistribution of wealth" in America (it, too, passed).
Monitors and two big-screen TVs flashed Mrs. Jochman's image through the hall, and she said, "Let me be very clear, I love all my students regardless of their sexual orientation. Because of my great concern for all students, I feel compelled ... to address the NEA's policy on sexual diversity. According to their current policies, the NEA does not consider the needs of those students with unwanted same-sex attractions. I've done some research over the past two years and have discovered that people do leave homosexuality."
Mrs. Jochman rattled off scientific evidence for her position and explained her proposal: NBI 15 would add ex-gay to the NEA's list of sexual expression, which would-most urgently-allow school counselors to help students desiring to leave the gay lifestyle. Delegates gawked, and perhaps Mrs. Jochman sensed it. She read a bit faster, determined to finish within her allotted floor time. She concluded: "To deny referrals to group or counselors who are trained in helping those students who seek change is the most discriminative act of all. Where is the equality and tolerance for the facts about ex-gays? I move to adopt New Business Item 15."
A sea of stares and glances filled the assembly hall. Mrs. Jochman remained at the Pennsylvania podium to answer questions. One man approached his state's microphone, received President Weaver's recognition, and moved that NBI 15 be dismissed out-of-hand.
A thunderous "AYE!" reverberated through the hall. She turned and walked away from the podium, as NEA business continued; Mr. Weaver called for the next NBI presenter to speak.
About an hour later, tears flowed from Mrs. Jochman's eyes as Ms. Bruns and Mr. Kaiser consoled her. She told WORLD, "Oh, that was hostile."
At least one pro-choice feminist, Linnea Archer of Minnesota, told WORLD she was embarrassed by the treatment conservatives received: "I consider myself very liberal. I was pretty upset because everything we stand for [at NEA] is to be tolerant of lots of ideas on different issues and I was just upset that we didn't hear debates on the issues [conservatives] brought up."
Conservatives wonder whether it's worth the hassle being a full NEA member. A little-known option allows NEA conscientious dissenters to go "religious accommodation." This lets a teacher remain in the union while listing reservations that union dues might be spent to support objectionable social policies-although some complain that the NEA bureaucracy rolls out the red tape.
But while going "religious accommodation" allows a teacher to remain within a unionized school, it virtually forfeits their having any say in local, state, or national policy. For now, the opportunity to air their ideas, plus the fundamental fact that the NEA's national representative assembly is a democratic body, keeps some in service as NEA delegates.
Susan Halverson, a Minnesota delegate, initially sought delegate status after hearing Coral Ridge Presbyterian Church pastor D. James Kennedy urge NEA union members to get involved at the national level: "The problem is Christians aren't getting involved. They are not a voice. I have every right to speak that anyone else does. You've got to love them [delegates], you've got to speak the truth, and then let the Lord work."
So for now, David O'Neal plans to attend next year's NEA national representative assembly in Washington, where NEA activists will stage a massive march for education. Mr. O'Neal will be retired by then, so to remain an NEA delegate, he will work part-time hours at his school. "If we are passionate about something, it is worth defending."