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Group warns of silent growth of the far right

The far right is slowly and silently gaining power in Florida _ winning seats on local boards, influencing lawmakers and changing school policy.

Floridians better take notice, a group of panelists said Wednesday.

"I do not believe the citizens of Florida are awake yet and really understand the dangers facing them," said Pat Tornillo, president of the Florida Education Association-United teachers union.

Tornillo, Charles Lee of the Florida Audubon Society and state Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, D-Davie, spoke at a panel discussion Wednesday organized by the National Council of Jewish Women and People For the American Way.

People For the American Way, which describes itself as a non-partisan, constitutional liberties organization, has been fighting efforts by far right groups in other states.

Susan Glickman, Florida director for the organization, said Wednesday's panel discussion was the first of several meetings planned in an effort to start a grass-roots movement against radical conservatives in this state.

The panelists said the far right is here.

Tornillo spoke about the controversy in Lake County, where a conservative Christian majority on the School Board has tried to get rid of preschool programs and censor sex education courses among other things.

The board members were voted into office because "the citizens of Lake County fell asleep at the switch," Tornillo said.

In Tallahassee, moral values and conservative issues have gained attention in the Legislature.

Lawmakers are considering bills that would:

Make prayer permissible in Florida's public schools under certain circumstances. A "non-sectarian" prayer would be allowed before assemblies, graduations, football games and other events if a majority of students agree.

Require public school teachers to teach "the principles of moral and ethical conduct" to students.

Allow school boards, under certain circumstances, to let religious groups hold activities at public educational facilities.

Lawmakers also have debated wheth-er all students should have sex education classes and whether yoga and other relaxation techniques should be allowed in public schools.

Conservative groups have opposed the use of techniques such as lowered lights, closed eyes and measured breathing.

"Those are the kinds of things I'm trying to fight," said Wasserman Schultz.

Schultz said she was opposed by a far right candidate in 1992, but voters wouldn't know it _ he came across as a moderate, pro-business candidate and avoided discussion of controversial issues such as abortion.

The panelists warned about these kind of "stealth" candidates who don't reveal their true, archconservative views, then are elected to office.