Candidates asked about religion

August 07, 1994|By Anne Haddad and Kerry O'Rourke | Anne Haddad and Kerry O'Rourke,Sun Staff Writers

Until this year, the county teachers union had never asked candidates for local office what churches they attended before making endorsements.

But this year, Carroll County Education Association (CCEA) members said, they are more aware of increased activism by organized conservative religious groups. They said they have a right to quiz candidates on their views before they endorse them.

Although the union's official questionnaire and interview stuck to issues, one teacher on the panel asked a follow-up question to some candidates considered conservative.

She asked whether they were affiliated with groups founded by Jerry Falwell or Marion G. "Pat" Robertson, and whether they were members of the Church of the Open Door in Westminster.

"I think they were inappropriate," said Gary W. Bauer, a school board candidate who says he is a conservative Christian but is not necessarily affiliated with national groups. He attends Faith Baptist Church, but his church membership has no relevance to the campaign, he said.

"I've never seen the Church of the Open Door as being a political entity," Mr. Bauer said.

The Christian church on Route 140 has 3,000 members. Average Sunday attendance is 1,500, according to the pastor's secretary.

Union leaders Jim Torretti and Cynthia Huggins Cummings would not identify the teacher who asked the question about religion, but they said many members share that teacher's concern about local school boards nationwide coming under the control of conservative groups.

"It was asked for political reasons, not religious reasons," Ms. Cummings said.

Ms. Cummings is president of the CCEA, but she said she was not involved in the endorsement process because she is a candidate this year for the District 5 state Senate seat.

Ms. Cummings is running in the Democratic primary against Uniontown resident Rachelle Feldman-Hurwitz. The winner will face Republican incumbent Larry E. Haines in the general

election. Mr. Haines is vice president of the Church of the Open Door Inc.

Ms. Cummings said recent public criticism directed at her about the issue is "a political vendetta" and that she had nothing to do with the questions about religion.

Ms. Feldman-Hurwitz said all candidates should have been asked the same questions. She chose not to be interviewed by the union for an endorsement. The union endorsed Ms. Cummings in that contest.

The CCEA announced its endorsements in six local races two weeks ago. Members of the Carroll Association of School Employees also were involved. The two unions together have about 1,600 members. They did not endorse candidates who did not complete questionnaires or appear before a nine-member interviewing committee.

Mr. Torretti said teachers are aware of the increasing political power some members of the Church of the Open Door are seeking. It mirrors a nationwide trend, he said.

"It certainly is known to us and it has been printed in many newspaper and magazine articles that school boards are a particular target of the radical right," Mr. Torretti said.

"We don't have a problem with them belonging to a church, but when we're interviewing candidates to support, we are interested in people who support education for everyone, and who agree with our viewpoint," he said.

"Most of the radical right do not agree with us very often," he said, on issues such as tuition tax credits for private schools, labor relations, censorship of books and teachers' addressing controversial issues in the classroom.

"The question about the Church of the Open Door was probably not the best way to get at what we were trying to gather," Mr. Torretti said. "We could have focused on more specific concerns we had."

They had asked about those issues of concern in the formal interview, he said.

Membership in the church "would not have guaranteed nonendorsement of that candidate," Mr. Torretti said. "It would have told us we need to ask more detailed questions on issues of concern, such as censorship, support for vouchers or tax credits, and how much control teachers would have on what is taught."

Ms. Cummings agreed that questions about church affiliation were not the best approach.

Carroll has elected committed Christians such as Cheryl A. McFalls and Joseph D. Mish to the school board in past years, but they were not seen as part of an organized movement, Mr. Torretti said.

"Maybe they had some of those same views, but we as a group didn't perceive any organized effort to take over," Mr. Torretti said.

In the school board race, the union endorsed incumbent Carolyn L. Scott and newcomer Carole M. "Cyd" Pecoraro.

Ms. Pecoraro said she was not asked about religion. She said she didn't think that was an appropriate question for any candidate.

It was a question that could not legally have been posed to a teacher looking for a job, school board candidate Michael R. Baker pointed out.

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