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Young Religious Conservatives Form Their Own Group

By DANIELA ALTIMARI | Courant Staff Writer

July 07, 2008

The topic of the high school discussion was homosexuality, and almost everyone in the class expressed the view that "it's OK to be gay."

Jennifer Landry believed otherwise. "The act is horrible," she said, "but the people are in need of sincere love."

She immediately felt the harsh sting of reprobation from her classmates. "They all verbally attacked me," recalled Landry, now 23 and living in Southington. "That was the moment when I realized there was a problem."

That problem, in Landry's view, is the everything-goes ethos embraced by most of her generation. These days, though, she no longer feels so alone: She found kinship with like-minded young people through the Family Institute of Connecticut's nascent youth wing.

Like its parent organization, the youth group known as iFIC, an obvious play for the iPod generation rejects abortion and same-sex marriage and supports home-schooling and sexual abstinence outside of marriage. Its members, largely Catholics or evangelical Christians, view public policy through the prism of their faith.

"We're not ashamed of what we believe in," said Michael Ruminsky, a 23-year-old from Hartford who will leave for seminary in August to begin his journey toward ordination as a Catholic priest.

It just so happens that what they believe in is sharply at odds with the views of most of their peers.

According to a national CBS News poll released last month, 40 percent of respondents between 18 and 29 believe gays and lesbians ought to be permitted to marry; another 28 percent back the idea of civil unions. In a reliably blue state such as Connecticut, where civil unions have been the law since 2005 and the state Supreme Court is reviewing a case that would legalize gay marriage, that support likely runs far deeper.

Even among the religious right, there's been a shift, according to some political observers. Traditional concerns about same-sex marriage, abortion and stem cell research are losing ground with some evangelical leaders to worries about global warming and the treatment of military detainees. "The Moral Majority side of the religious right is kind of struggling," said David Roozen, director of the Hartford Seminary Institute for Religion Research. "The moderate middle has become very skeptical about it."

Besides, Roozen added, "people have gas to worry about so somehow homosexuality ... is less of a concern."

It's enough to make a young religious conservative feel like an outcast, perennially out-of-step with the tenor of the times. "Being part of this organization is a countercultural activity," Ruminsky observed.

But they also believe there is a wide if hidden swath of Connecticut youths who share their unease about the moral direction of the state and the nation. "There's a silent majority out there," said Leah Thomas, the group's 23-year-old executive director. "They think maybe theirs is the only voice."

Thomas, a graduate of Trinity College who now works in the Catholic campus ministry at the University of Hartford, has a soft voice and a gentle demeanor. "I'm an introvert," she said.

But she speaks loudly when she feels the need. She was part of a pro-life student group at Trinity that published an alternative brochure for women facing an unplanned pregnancy. The brochures put out by the liberal women's center on campus made no mention of adoption or post-abortion counseling services, both of which she viewed as grave omissions.

The youth group, which now has more than 50 members, was launched at the beginning of the year, thanks largely to a chance meeting between Thomas and Family Institute Executive Director Peter Wolfgang. Both are regular attendees at the early morning Mass at the Cathedral of St. Joseph in Hartford. They got to chatting one day and a movement was born.

Since its formation, the group's accomplishments have been mainly organizational, selecting officers, drafting a mission statement and creating a pamphlet. Next up: Producing a video and building a website.

The youth wing has already succeeded in building alliances with church youth groups, homeschoolers and college ministries. Members plan to staff a booth at JesusFest on Saturday at Union Congregational Church in Rockville.

To win the hearts and minds of the public, however, the group will have to do what all successful movements do: Win allies beyond its own tight circle of true believers. Wolfgang envisions the day iFIC chapters will be as commonplace in Connecticut high schools as gay-straight alliances are today. "Right now, they're years ahead of us," he said of well-established politically progressive groups.

Swaying public opinion and building a generation of conservative leaders is the long-term goal. "It's about the future of the pro-family, pro-life cause in Connecticut," Wolfgang said, "and where this cause will be not just tomorrow but for the next 20 to 50 years."

Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant. To view other stories on this topic, search the Hartford Courant Archives at http://www.courant.com/archives.
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