Focus on the Family accused of mixing local politics with its stance on family values.

More than 800 people crammed into the small Colorado Springs auditorium for the Sunday evening gathering. But this was not a church service. It was a standing-room-only meeting of Citizen’s Project, a group formed in 1992 to counter what organizers call the growing impact of the city’s “Religious Right” groups.

Citizen’s Project’s 6,000 supporters may be the loudest critics of Focus on the Family, the conservative $78 million-a-year ministry that moved to the city in 1991, and Colorado for Family Values, the grassroots organizations that spearheaded Amendment 2; but they are not the only critics.

Sharp divisions

Many residents of this community of 400,000 at the foot of Pikes Peak say the town has been sharply divided since Amendment 2 won 53 percent of the state’s vote in November’s election. The amendment prohibits the state and local governments from passing laws that ban discrimination against homosexuals based on sexual orientation. It also overturned existing homosexual-rights measures passed earlier by voters in Denver and two other cities. In January, a Denver District Court judge issued a preliminary injunction that will keep the amendment off the books until a lawsuit challenging its constitutionality is settled.

But even though a final verdict on Amendment 2 may take years, increasing numbers of Springs residents—including some who work for the city’s 55 evangelical organizations—have become concerned about growing evangelical activism. The community has attracted reporters from dozens of media outlets, including CBS News, Time, the British Broadcasting Corporation, and USA Today.

People on both sides of the homosexual-rights issue are angry, and both sides report receiving death threats from opponents. But the strangest case to arise from the controversy was the January attack on a female therapist who sported a Citizen’s Project “Celebrate Diversity” bumper sticker on her car and has counted lesbians among her clients.

The therapist was attacked in her office, where she was knocked unconscious with a vase and scalded with a pot of hot coffee. A knife was used to scratch a cross on the back of her hand, and a bloody knife was used to stick a Citizen’s Project newsletter to her door. The assailant sprayed the therapist’s walls with the message: “Stop evil. Seek God. Repent.”

Many opponents of Amendment 2 believe the attacker was an “angry evangelical homophobe.” Amendment supporters called it an “alleged attack,” and like the suicide of a homosexual the day after the election, say it is part of an orchestrated effort to build support for the liberal cause.

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The growing opposition

Citizen’s Project can be viewed as a local, grassroots version of People for the American Way, an organization founded in the 1980s to counter the power and influence of conservative Christian activist groups.

Members of what would become Citizen’s Project got together last spring after phone calls from well-organized conservative Christians halted planned presentations by a witch and a homosexual at a local public-school program. Membership in the group picked up as local Christian conservatives went after allegedly New Age textbooks in a local elementary school, sought tougher laws for adult bookstores and businesses, and pressured the local library not to carry the controversial Madonna book, Sex.

Public support for Citizen’s Project increased sharply after last November’s election.

Conservatives taking over?

“There’s a concern out there about the Religious Right taking over this town, and we’ve gotten a huge response from people wanting to make sure that doesn’t happen,” said Richard Skorman, a Citizen’s Project board member. Colorado Springs, which is home to half-a-dozen military installations, including the U.S. Air Force Academy, has long been a bastion of conservatism.

But many in the community say the large number of evangelical organizations has given the city’s politics a decidedly religious slant.

Currently, 55 national or international evangelical groups have headquarters in the town. Together these groups bring in $357 million in income annually, employ 2,400 people, and spend $33 million on local payroll. Many of the organizations focus on typically “spiritual” ministries such as discipleship and evangelism (the Navigators), international child development (Compassion International), and Bible publishing (International Bible Society). But many residents grew concerned after Focus on the Family arrived in the fall of 1991 and became the city’s biggest ministry. Critics assert that Focus, which speaks out on many national issues, vowed it would not get involved in local politics. But it has criticized a Colorado senator who opposed the Pornography Victims Compensation Act, which Focus favored, and the organization did support Amendment 2.

“This has always been a conservative town, but in the past there was a willingness to dialogue about different perspectives on a whole host of issues,” says Terry McGonigal, who for eight years has served as training director of a Colorado Springs-based parachurch organization, and who is ordained in the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.).

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“But now, because of the growing politicization of the local evangelical movement, the mutual respect is gone and instead there’s an entrenchment of positions—both on the Right and the Left—that I think is extemely regrettable,” says McGonigal. “And rightly or wrongly, Focus has been the lightning rod for a lot of the anger.”

McGonigal is working with the Colorado Springs Catholic bishop, a Jewish rabbi, and numerous evangelical leaders and pastors to form a group of religious leaders who will try to restore mutual respect to the city.

Since the November election, representatives of Focus have been responding to a barrage of media inquiries from around the world. During the past year, the ministry has received bomb threats, had its windows broken, and had animal intestines dumped at its entrances.

The traditional family is one of Focus’s top concerns, and the ministry has opposed “special rights” for homosexuals. But ever since the election, Focus has publicly been trying to distance itself from the homosexual controversy.

“We do not take political stands on issues,” Focus vice-president Paul Hetrick told 150 people attending a panel discussion on the impact of the Springs’ religious organizations held two weeks after the November election. But within days, nearly 2 million Focus supporters received a seven-page letter from Focus founder James Dobson that raised grave concerns about a dozen policy areas—such as homosexuals in the military—which were to be influenced by incoming President Bill Clinton.

Tom Minnery, the ministry’s vice-president of public policy, says Focus has been misrepresented by the media, which report on the ministry “out of suspicion and ignorance.”

Minnery says Focus on the Family is forbidden by the IRS to become involved directly or indirectly in partisan political campaigns.

The ministry is allowed, however, to spend up to $1 million annually to educate constituents on issues and lobby on specific bills. Still, Minnery says, that involves only a small portion of the organization’s funds.

“Our philosophical opponents have to blame this Amendment 2 on something or someone, so they blame it on the infiltration of evangelical organizations,” Minnery says. Work on Amendment 2 began long before Focus shifted its headquarters from California, Minnery says, and the ministry would have been equally supportive even if it were not located in Colorado. Minnery says “pernicious rumors” persist about Focus, such as one claiming the ministry sought lists of single teachers from public schools in an effort to identify homosexuals. The three public-school superintendents in the area have sent letters of support to Focus in order to prove the allegations are untrue.

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Nevertheless, committees of Citizen’s Project are monitoring the ministry’s activities, doing everything from getting onto mailing lists to attending Community Impact Seminars hosted by Focus.

Evangelicals divided

Indeed, some local evangelical leaders are angry, saying Focus’s “we-are-not-political” statements are dishonest and cause confusion among Springs residents.

“If Focus does not want to be perceived as political, it needs to put a gag order on its people who keep making political statements,” said one leader who refused to be named for this article.

“Evangelicals in Colorado need to decide if we’re about antigay legislation or proclaiming the gospel, and the two are not necessarily the same thing.”

That is a decision evangelicals in other states will need to face as well. Colorado for Family Values, the group that authored the state’s Amendment 2, is sharing its expertise with Christians in California, Minnesota, Iowa, and Oregon.

By Steve Rabey in Colorado Springs.

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