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Religious right shakes up NY school polls: Peter Pringle on a conservative rally against the liberal agenda in the classroom

NEW YORKERS go to the polls today to fill 280 seats on the city's public school boards, a local election considered to be of such minor consequence when it was last held four years ago that only 7 per cent of those eligibile cast a ballot.

However, this year's election has turned into a civic brawl not seen in the nation's largest school system since the introduction of sex education in the 1960s. The number of voters is expected to be much higher and the results to have resonance far beyond the city's classrooms.

Corruption and cronyism on the school board dominated the 1989 elections, but now the issues reflect national debates over progressive-versus-traditional school curricula, and pit liberals favouring an agenda of open discussion of Aids, condoms and homosexuality against conservatives, including the evangelical right, who are determined to keep debates of alternative lifestyles out of the schools.

For the first time, followers of the evangelical preacher and one-time presidential candidate, Pat Robertson, are organising in New York, a bold move in a city regarded in US politics as extremely liberal. Mr Robertson's confidence stems from inroads his group has made in other education systems around the country, including Texas, California and Florida. In those states he promoted candidates advocating the introduction of school prayer, creationism over Darwinism and suppression of dicussions about homosexuality. Mr Robertson's Christian Coalition won 40 per cent of the state and local races it ran in November, according to People for the American Way, a constitutional watchdog group.

In New York, the coalition has joined with the Roman Catholic archdiocese, a strange affair given that Mr Robertson's organisation claims 300,000 members with an overwhelmingly Protestant base. But the coalition and the Catholics have worked together against abortion, and in the school board elections they are distributing half a million election guides that highlight candidates supporting their moral values.

The religious conservatives' intrusion has been so open and determined it has prompted some liberal critics to question whether it transgresses the constitutional separation of Church and State. Under their tax-exempt status, churches may not endorse candidates, but they are allowed to lobby for legislation to explain campaign issues and to encourage voting.

Eagerly watching the alliance between the Catholic Church and the evangelicals are the leading contenders for this year's New York's mayoral election. For the incumbent Mayor, David Dinkins, a liberal black, and his key Republican challenger, the former federal prosecutor, Rudolph Giuliani, a big question is how the city's growing Hispanic population will vote.

In 1989, Mr Dinkins won 70 per cent of the Hispanic vote, but recent polls suggest his popularity with them is falling. Hispanics are mostly Roman Catholics, and the vigorous Catholic-religious right campaign might woo sufficient numbers away from Mr Dinkins to tip the balance in a tight vote in November.

Mr Robertson's campaign in New York was launched on fertile ground. In February, the chancellor of New York's school board, Joe Fernandez, was voted out ostensibly for advocating a teacher's guide designed to help children cope with New York's multi- ethnic, multi-cultural environment. The guide also suggested teaching first-graders respect for homosexuals, and advocates the distribution of condoms to teenagers, a break with tradition that was too much for many parents and some key board members.

They forced Mr Fernandez to resign as head of the seven-strong board, whose members are appointed by New York's borough presidents and the mayor. It runs the city's high schools, and can set policies for all public schools. The 32 school boards, whose members are being elected today, run the elementary and junior high schools. Nearly 1 million children attend New York's public schools - the largest school system in the US.

Some of the most vocal opponents of Mr Fernandez's curriculum have been Orthodox Jews, black Baptists and Pentecostal ministers, but the strongest opposition came from a grandmother, Mary Cummins, who heads the all-white Catholic school board in the borough of Queens. She complained that Mr Fernandez was distributing propaganda for gays and lesbians.

Mr Fernandez's supporters replied that the emphasis on sex in his agenda was misplaced. His guide is 443 pages long and includes instructions, among other things, on how to bake Greek bread, play African games and do the Mexican hat dance. Most of the controversial issues about homosexuals and what children should be taught in schools are on three pages.

Still, this was more than enough for the Pat Robertson faithful to invite themselves into the battle. Leading the Christian Coalition's drive is a clean-cut young man, the Rev Terry Twerell, who says he wants to bring back the 'Judaeo-Christian ethic' into New York's schools, by which he means more prayers and fewer condoms. But he stresses he is not a 'book-burner', nor does he want to force people to turn to God.

Like many US evangelists he is a man of mystery, however. A native of Missouri, he came to New York 23 years ago as an insurance executive, but he will not name the company. He says he went to a Mid-West university, but refuses to say which one. When I pressed him on the matter he accused me of trying to 'smear' his campaign.

Fiercely independent New Yorkers, who are always wary of being hijacked by fringe outsiders, may react against him. Or the conservatives may have made significant inroads here, too. Today's votes, which normally take several weeks to count, will be a good guide.

(Photograph omitted)