It was supposed to be a rather placid meeting in which Virginians, concerned about the deterioration of family life and values could calmly exchange ideas and vote for delegates to a White House conference next year.
Instead, the Virginia Conference on Families became an emotional battle-ground between the professional counselors, teachers and social workers who had organized the meeting and a throng of antiabortion, antifeminist conservatives who attened en masse.
When the smoke cleared late this afternoon at the Sheraton Hotel here, the conservatives, united under the banner of the "Pro-Family Coalition," had won a stunning victory, electing 22 of the 24 representatives to the White House conference. And they predicted similar efforts to capture other family conferences throughout the country in the next few months.
"It's just one out of 50," said a pleased Lawrence Pratt, a Republican state delegate-elect from Fairfax County who helped coordinate the conservative forces. "You could call this an early skirmish in a campaign that is far from finished."
The conference, which had expected about 250 participants, instead ended up with nearly 500. According to coalition organizers, at least 300 worse the small blue paper dots of an antiabortion "right-to-life" group.
"I feel like a Christian in with the lions," said Carl G. Pudliner, state coordinator of the National Organization for Women, as she surveyed a hallway full of blue dots. Pudliner said her profeminist group had about a half-dozen members at the conference.
Also less than happy with the outcome was conference coordinator Jessica L. Cohen, a Virginia Tech home economics professor. "I'm very upset and very disappointed," said Cohen after the balloting. "What we have now is a minority view that supposedly will represent five million Virginians."
The conferences were proposed last year by President Carter, who declared "the American family is under unprecendented pressure" and exhorted a national committee that he appointed to "reach out, not only to scholars and to experts, but to many thousands of Americans . . . who know from their own experience what makes a family strong."
The 50 state conferences, the first of which were held this week here and in South Dakota, will culminate next summer in three national meetings under White House auspices.
Gov. John N. Dalton earlier this year appointed Virginia Tech's Cohen coordinator of the Virginia conference, sponsored by the school and by the state health, mental health and welfare departments. Task forces previously were set up around the state to discuss a variety of problems such as stress, education, work and their impact on family life.
Pratt and other coalition members charged today that the task forces were heavily stacked with professionals and bureaucrats who had a vested interest in expanding the government's role in family matters. They also contended that the conference format was designed to prevent opposing groups from expressing their views and revising the task force reports.
"They've obviously trying to cut out grass-roots people with a different point of view," said jo ann Gasper, a McLean publisher to two conservative newsletters on women and families.
The coalition prevailed upon Cohen to tighten up security at the afternoon balloting so that only registered attendees with Virginia driver's licenses could vote.
"We don't want anybody busing in loads of feminists or homosexuals from out of state," said one coalition member.
They need not have worried. It was clear even before the votes were counted that the conservative forces were in command.
At one packed afternoon discussion group in the appropriately named Grant Battlefield Room, more than 60 of the conservatives objected to virtually every task force conclusion. They found in each indicatons of government medding, atheism, and other evils.
"It's a humanistic, atheistic philosophy being used, it's not the philosophy of God-fearing Americans," said Helen Stone of Stafford County.
Norfolk Democratic Del. Evelyn Hailey stormed out of the session saying, "I came to listen to ideas, not to right-wing doctrine."
At the afternoon's final meeting, coalition members attempted to pass a resolution eliminating all of the task fore reports and calling for new ones to be written. The resolution was ruled out of order by Cohen and State secretary of Human Resources Jean Harris.
Harris said afterwards she felt the conference was not representative of the state. She noted that Gov. Dalton will appoint 12 more delegates to the national session. But it was unclear whether the conservation Republican governor, who opposes the Equal Rights Amendment and government funding for abortion, would select any liberal delegates.
"To the extent that the delegates will represent Virginia, the governor will probably want to consider people who share his views," said Dalton's press secretary, Paul G. Edwards, in Richmond.
Cohen said the conference represented "a year's work on my part and it's all going down the tubes . . . what you saw here today wasn't the grass roots but you one hayfield."