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Christian conservative groups grow

They go by names such as Citizens for Excellence in Education, the Christian Coalition, Citizens Opposed to Pornography Etc., and Concerned Women for America.

The groups are growing in number and visibility in Pasco. And if anyone doubts that local leaders are taking the conservative Christian movement seriously, they need only look at the statements of school Superintendent Tom Weightman this week.

Weightman reversed his long-held support of having superintendents appointed rather than elected; he cited concerns that conservative Christians could unduly influence the appointment process.

"I know several people who said they were quite flattered by that," said Jacqueline Lewnes, director of the recently formed Pasco chapter of the Christian Coalition.

Lewnes, who was elected vice chairman of the Pasco Republican Party two years ago, was herself miffed by Weightman's reference to people "who have an agenda of forcing their own brand of morality and Christianity on the majority of people."

"I don't take Christian beliefs to be a threat to anyone," she said. "There is no agenda. All we want to do is have the kids have an opportunity to learn and grow."

The size of the local conservative Christian movement is difficult to ascertain. The local Christian Coalition chapter, for instance, has about 65 members, but Lewnes suggested that many more support the national organization founded by television evangelist Pat Robertson.

Certainly, the movement has become increasingly involved in public affairs over the past two years in Pasco, with leaders regularly attending public meetings and speaking out on a variety of issues.

Conservative Christians lobbied hard for tougher restrictions against adult businesses in the county and in New Port Richey. Lewnes expects to distribute 35,000 candidate surveys to local churches this weekend in preparation for the Nov. 8 general election. They are delving into local education issues.

"We are becoming much more visible and vocal," said Jo Deck, the prayer action leader for the Pasco Concerned Women for America chapter and host of a public access cable show. "I really think that (leaders) are well aware that we are united and we are working toward getting a more conservative government."

But while their visibility is growing, their influence and overall support remains unclear.

Commissioner Bonnie Zimmer, for instance, courted the vote aggressively but overwhelmingly lost in her Republican primary. Commissioner Ed Collins has also courted that vote _ this week he presented an anti-pornography resolution to Citizens Opposed to Pornography Etc. (COPE) _ but still faces a strong election challenge.

In a state House Democratic primary, Karen Stockwell tried to hammer Debra Prewitt for voting in favor of an adult theater proposal, but she ended up losing to Prewitt. Now in the general election, Prewitt feels comfortable enough about her support of abortion rights that she is stressing how her Republican and independent opponents want to make abortion illegal in most cases.

That makes sense, according to retiring state Rep. John Long. He said a Democratic poll taken last March showed that 84 percent of Pasco residents support abortion rights. To him, that figure alone suggests that the influence of the Christian right in Pasco is weak.

"I guess there's a presence in Pasco, but I couldn't even name one name," he said.

Leaders in the conservative Christian group point to unsuccessful Republican state House candidate Ralph Brown as evidence of their potential success. A television repairman who used to be principal of a small Christian school, Brown won 25 percent of the vote in a three-man primary despite little money to spend on the campaign.

"He'll be back," predicted Helen Koczur, vice president of Pasco Right to Life.

Koczur attributed the rise in activism by conservative Christians to concerns about President Clinton's character, to concerns about broken families, crime and to adult businesses moving to Pasco. "Family values are eroding so fast. You can just do so much nationwide, but you can do a lot locally."

Harriet Mathews, assistant director of the newly formed Pasco chapter of Citizens for Excellence in Education, is hopeful as she looks to the future of Christian-oriented activism in Pasco.

"At this point, we're trying to be the spark to get the fire going, but I don't think there's a flaming fire yet," she said.

How influential is the movement now? "Ask me on Nov. 8."