WASHINGTON -- Flanked by Republican congressional leaders, the conservative Christian Coalition unveiled a wide-ranging social agenda that proposes to curb abortion and pornography and guarantee the right to pray in schools and other public places.
The "Contract with the American Family," as the coalition labeled its package of proposals, stands to cast divisive social issues into the legislative mix of the Republican-controlled Congress, which to date has concentrated on economic matters.
The contract contains 10 proposals that have the support of most Americans, according to Ralph Reed, executive director of the coalition, a high-profile Religious Right organization founded by television evangelist and 1988 GOP presidential candidate Pat Robertson.
The contract "is to ensure that our neighborhoods are safe, that our schools work, that marriages stay together, and that children grow up in a culture that celebrates, rather than undermines the time-honored values that we are teaching in our homes, churches and synagogues," Mr. Reed said at a news conference yesterday.
The proposal calls for a constitutional amendment that would ensure the right of citizens to initiate prayer in public places, such as at high school graduations or on courthouse lawns. In addition, the contract urges a new tax deduction for retirement accounts for women who stay home to tend to their families; a ban on late-term abortions; a law to protect children from obscene materials on computer phone networks; and an end to government funding for the National Endowment for the Arts and the Legal Services Corp., which provides lawyers for poor people.
The Christian Coalition's platform -- particularly the public prayer plank -- ran into immediate and harsh criticism from a dozen mainstream religious groups, including representatives of Episcopal, Presbyterian, Methodist and Jewish organizations.
"The Christian Coalition wants to dictate their version of Christianity to our school children," said Father Robert J. Brooks, director of government relations for the Episcopal Church. "And worse, they want government bureaucrats to determine how this should work."
For all the fanfare, the coalition's contract represents little more than a repackaging of several items from the group's long-established legislative wish list. But yesterday's event affirmed the political clout of the conservative Christian movement.
Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole of Kansas approved the use of an ornate meeting room just off the Sen- ate chamber for the coalition's news conference. Key congressional leaders attended the event, including House Speaker Newt Gingrich of Georgia and Sen. Phil Gramm of Texas, another GOP presidential aspirant.
Rep. Roscoe G. Bartlett, a Western Maryland Republican, was the only Maryland lawmaker present.
The coalition provided grass-roots support and financial help to Republicans working to enact their legislative agenda in the first 100 days of the new Congress. Now it wants congressional allies to address the social issues the coalition considers crucial.
"As religious conservatives, we have finally gained what we have always sought -- a place at the table, a sense of legitimacy and a voice in the conversation," said Mr. Reed.
The "Contract with the American Family" echoes in name and form the House Republicans' "Contract with America," the 1994 campaign manifesto that included calls for term limits, a balanced budget amendment and lower taxes.
Some of the 10 planks -- such as the elimination of the NEA, which funds arts projects -- are already included in Republican proposals pending in Congress.
One analyst said the group recognized political realities in compiling its agenda, stopping short, for example, of calling for a legislative ban on abortions.
"It strikes me as Ralph Reed being the ultimate political pragmatist," said Thomas E. Mann, director of governmental studies at the Brookings Institute, a Washington think tank. "He has no interest in dividing the Republican Party and weakening it, which would increase the chances for Clinton's re-election."
Mr. Reed insisted that his group does not view the contract as a litmus test for lawmakers.
"We are not here today to make threats. We are making no demands. We are issuing no ultimatums," he said. "We have no intention of doing to this Congress what the feminists, unions and the gay lobby did to Bill Clinton when he took office."
Mr. Gingrich spoke warmly of what he called the coalition's "common sense" agenda. He promised votes on each of the proposals so that conservatives would know "who says in Washington and does in Washington the same thing they say and do at home."
After meeting privately with Mr. Reed and other coalition representatives, Mr. Dole issued a statement praising their contract.
Criticism from other quarters, though, was intense.