GOP Handed a Christian Contract

School prayer and abortion are religious right issues that may split Republicans

IF nothing else, the Christian Coalition's announcement yesterday of its ''Contract With the American Family'' demonstrates that the religious-conservative political movement has never been more powerful.

House Speaker Newt Gingrich, Senate majority whip Trent Lott, and other members of Congress stood beside of the coalition's leaders as they announced their agenda. The site of the unveiling -- the Capitol building -- was also symbolic.

But therein lies the challenge for the congressional leaders, who are the ultimate keepers of the legislative agenda.

House and Senate leaders ''don't want to give them [the Christian right] all they want, but they don't want to offend them either,'' says John Green, an expert on Christian conservative politics at the University of Akron in Ohio. ''Lott and Gingrich are walking a fine line.''

Indeed, during the 104th Congress's first 100 days, the congressional leadership purposely avoided the contentious social issues that divide the Republican Party. This helped House members, in particular, push through an ambitious agenda. But it also put off the time when members would be dealing with these hot-button issues until closer to the 1996 elections.

Religious right leaders say that their issues enjoy the support of a majority of Americans, but on some matters, such as abortion, Republican leaders -- and presidential candidates -- are clearly uncomfortable.

Still, inside the halls of the new Republican-controlled Congress, the clout is clear.

Last November, says Green, the Christian right was ''very, very active'' in 30 House races that Republicans won. Beyond that, another 100 members ''pretty much agree with them,'' he says.

Some of the coalition's program simply endorses legislation pending before Congress that already carries wide support, such as a $500 tax credit for children.

The coalition also supports dismantling the Department of Education, part of a House plan to balance the federal budget, and ''school choice'' legislation to give parents publicly funded vouchers to send children to any school, public or private.

The fate of other items is less clear. The coalition's top proposal, a constitutional amendment ''to protect the religious liberties of Americans in public places'' -- a broader characterization of the school-prayer amendment that religious conservatives have long backed -- is a highly contentious issue. At one time, Speaker Gingrich promised a vote on a school-prayer amendment before the Fourth of July, but his commitment to that remains uncertain.

The coalition's handling of the abortion issue represents a retreat from past efforts to promote a constitutional amendment granting the fetus full protection as a person. Reflecting the efforts of anti-abortion advocates in Congress, who are retreating from a goal of banning abortion outright, the coalition advocates measures to restrict access to abortion and eliminate public funding for abortions.

As details of the Christian Coalition's 10-point contract, patterned after House Republicans' Contract With America, have trickled out in the days leading up to yesterday's formal announcement, opposition groups have been rehearsing their counterarguments.

Last week the American Civil Liberties Union sent a letter to President Clinton arguing against the proposed prayer measure, called the religious equality amendment. ''Religious expression in public schools is already protected by the First Amendment,'' the letter stated.

The liberal group People for the American Way, which tracks some 200 Christian conservative organizations, calls the Christian Coalition's agenda both ''out of step with and harmful to millions of American families.'' Executive Vice President Elliot Mincberg says that the agenda is interesting not only for what's there but for what's missing as well -- namely, any mention of homosexual rights, sex education, or the nomination of Henry Foster as surgeon-general -- omissions he calls admissions of political reality.

Ralph Reed, the Christian Coalition's executive director, is a pragmatic political strategist, say observers. And even if some groups, such as the Colorado Springs, Colo.-based group Focus on the Family, hold a more ''purist'' line on issues like abortion, the Christian Coalition leaders will be realistic. But just like lawmakers, Mr. Reed is also performing a ''balancing act,'' says Mr. Mincberg. ''He needs to be faithful to his constituents.''

Other Christian Coalition agenda items include:

*A requirement that federal inmates pay restitution to their victims.

*Protection of parental rights.

*Restricting pornography

*Support for private charities.

*Ending federal funding for the National Endowment for the Arts, the National Endowment for the Humanities, and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.

Moderate Republicans support parts of the coalition's agenda. One moderate, Rep. Christopher Shays (R) of Connecticut, opposes a school-prayer amendment and efforts to restrict abortion, but, he says, ''we should be focusing on the family and on ways to instill values.''

''There will be a vote on their agenda; they've waited their turn,'' Mr. Shays adds. ''I just hope it doesn't dominate the debate.''

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