Having defeated the Religious Right, Lake County, Florida, may have been an exception to the rule in the 1994 elections. We are certain that many other school districts throughout the nation have unknowingly elected religious extremists.
Perhaps you, like us, didn't realize the seriousness of electing a religious extremist, until it was too late. Unwittingly, we elected one member of the Christian Coalition in 1990, and two more in 1992. These candidates used what is now known as stealth tactics in their campaigns and, before we knew it, our school board was in the hands of the Religious Right. Only then did we become fully aware of the dangers facing our school system.
When we finally woke up, our first reaction was to feel helpless and overwhelmed. Then we began to study all the material we could find about the Religious Right. We researched their organization, analyzed their tactics, and learned their terminology. We were surprised to find that we were not alone; the influence of the Christian Right was being felt nationally. We discovered how well-financed they were, and how fanatically determined.
Our task, we could see, was enormous but we also saw the absolute necessity to stand up and protest. Our counterparts in Vista, California served as an example for us; they were a model for our organization and strategy.
The senselessness of what we were seeing finally brought us up short. We began to rethink our views on what was happening, to step back and see it as a whole. When we did, we saw that the trouble-making, the obstructionism, and the seemingly pointless wastes of time and money were not unrelated. Furthermore, we had the feeling that many of the majority's positions had been prepared before the meetings. When citizens' protests had no effect at all, it appeared their decisions had already been agreed upon. We began to believe the unbelievable: the Religious Right meant to do away with public schools.
What we did in Lake County
So what did we do about this insidious problem? All the information and concern led us to form a grassroots organization in 1993: People for Mainstream Values. A non-partisan PAC group, People for Mainstream Values dedicated itself to remedying the situation in the 1994 election. The contributions of this group were essential to our success.
What People for Mainstream Values did
What the teachers' union did
What the administrators did
What Lake County business leaders did
What the media did
What we learned
Although we were successful in defeating candidates of the Religious Right in 1994, we are well aware that the battle is far from over. We anticipate another difficult election in 1996. As it is a presidential election year, voter turnout will be high. Voter interest lessens the chance that "stealth" candidacies can succeed, but we are sure that the Religious Right has more tricks up its sleeve. Publicity and media exposure will be more essential than ever.
With the Religious Right a minority on the school board, we do not have the constant fireworks that brought us local, national, and international attention. We worry that citizens think that the fight has been won. We are concerned that their interest will wane, that they will stop attending school board meetings, and that they will lose touch with the issues. As we write this, public interest is still keen; we must work to keep it that way.
Therefore, we have to take a good look at how we can change and improve our methods in preparation for the challenges to come. We know that we should have began our grassroots movement before we did to have had more time and opportunity for informing the public. Now, we should expand our membership and network with other sympathetic organizations.
An important effort would be to better enlist the support of local ministers, priests, and rabbis who believe in the separation of church and state, as well as the crucial issue of religious freedom.
We must work harder to find our own solutions for improving public education. We cannot just be nay-sayers and reactors. We know that the subject of public education is a complex one, but we must strive to be constructive.
Finally, we need better funding. A dues system in People for Mainstream Values would be the place to start. The business community, realizing that the negative publicity caused by the school uproar resulted in financial loss, became a strong ally. We could easily expand this relationship.
Great things happened in Lake County
In Hawkins County, Tennessee, where a fundamentalist objection to certain curricular materials dominated civic life in the 80s, Phyllis Gibson said, "Things like this are good sometimes. They make us wake up and think about what we value, what we believe in, what we're willing to fight for." We realized how deeply we cared about the preservation of the public school system and how hard we were willing to fight for it. This is indeed a battle worth fighting.
Reprinted from "Saving Our Schools from the Religious Right: The Lake County, Florida Story." This booklet is available for $4.95 from Saving Our Lake County Schools, PO Box 492124, Leesburg, FL 34749.