The U.S. Congress is spoiling for another financial firefight over the controversial National Endowment for the Arts (NEA), which some critics claim displays an anti-Christian, antifamily bias.

In July, the House voted 217 to 216 to dismantle the NEA after House Speaker Newt Gingrich proposed replacing the agency's nearly $100 million annual budget with block grants to the states. But a Senate panel approved a bill to finance the agency through 2002, with $105 million allotted for 1998. A full Senate vote is expected by October. NEA opponents say the federal agency is unconstitutional and controlled by a cultural elite that pushes offensive material at taxpayer expense. Backers claim it has advanced American culture, pointing to many successes, including a significant increase in the number of theaters and community centers since its founding in 1965.

Though its current budget represents less than 1 percent of total giving for the arts, both sides agree that the controversial agency's influence is vastly greater than its size.

The vote to restrict NEA funds came after an intensive lobbying effort by the Forest, Virginia-based Christian Action Network. CAN displayed 40 NEA works on the Capitol steps in May as part of a traveling exhibit, "A Graphic Picture Is Worth a Thousand Votes." U.S. Capitol police confiscated 17 pieces of art on the basis of obscenity.

CAN President Martin Mawyer calls the NEA "a federal agency of hate, trash, and antireligious bigotry."

"The vilest of the vile are often given NEA grants," Mawyer says, "people who never would make a living out of such nonsense if they weren't on the public dole."

Mawyer says the NEA is an affront to morality. "You have to wonder at the logic of a system that says that people ...

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