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A Cecile Richards Jim Lacy FEATURE Doing the Lord’s Work In Austin BY JIM LACY Cecile Richards says it was the new bumper sticker on her neighboriS car “Gocl please protect me from your followers! “that two years ago finally motivated her to start an organization opposing the reli gious right Of course the fact that her mother had just lost the gubernatorial race to a coalition thick with Christian conservatives may have had some influence as well. Richards’ group The Texas Freedom Network together with People For The American Way, brought together activists and community leaders from around the country for a conference in Austin entitled: “Defeating the Religious Right at Home: Grassroots Activism for State and Local Leaders.” For the Texas activists, this conference comes at the end of a long legislative session in which the Texas Freedom Network and its allies successfully challenged what has become the number one issue for the religious right at both the national and state level: private school vouchers. What the abortion issue was for the Christian Right in the 1980s \(when no transportation bill seemed complete education have become in the 1990s. Four voucher billsthree in the House and one in the Senatewere introduced this session, along with a slew of voucher amendments. Although one voucher bill passed the Senate Education Committee and one voucher amendment tied 68-68 in a House floor vote, in the end no voucher bill passed in either chamber. In defeating voucher plans, opponents were able to bring together an unlikely, but effective, coalition of theoretically unrelated groups: civil rights activists, Protestant clergy, organized labor, and suburban Republicans. Representatives of these groups met at the late-September conference in Austin, to discuss the lessons from their previous efforts and their plans for future organizing. \(In the lingua franca of conference participants, “organizing” is referred to, alternately, as, “networking,” “dialoguing” or, worse still, “partSpeakers at the three-day conference covered such diverse topics as tax status, talk radio, fundraising, communication, and local organizational strategies. Some activists described battles in their own states to stop private school voucher plans, and to keep boards of education out of the hands of the religious right. \(Christian rightists currently hold six of fifteen seats on the Texas Board of Education, responsible for, among other things, the curriculum for state After the Christian Coalition announced its misnamed “Samaritan Project” earlier this yearat a press conference in which then Coalition Director Ralph Reed was flanked by African American clergy supporting private and parochial school voucher plansthe NAACP and the People For The American Way followed suit by forming their own, alternative, “Partnership for Public Education.” Both sides have dug in for what looks to be a protracted fight over the future of education. Voucher plans similar to those proposed in Texas have been introduced in Washington, D.C. and in more than twenty-five states, but until now have had only limited success, although all that now stands between a voucher program for the nation’s capital is President Clinton’s promise to veto the plan recently passed by Congress. The public school coalition that Richards’ Network managed to bring together, effective as it was in defeating Religious Right voucher plans, appears to be more of a shotgun wedding than a perfect union. All of the participants at the weekend conference agreed that transferring money from public to private schools would harm public education. They were not of one mind, though, 10 THE TEXAS OBSERVER OCTOBER 24, 1997