Before the White House Conference Families began last weekend, many observers and delegates were predicting that the conference would produce some fireworks over the sensitive issues of abortion, homosexuality and few Equal Rights Amendment.
So few observers were surprised when a conservative coalition of about 90 delegates stormed out of the Baltimore conference the second day, after the conference had voted to support several of those issues, notably federal funding for abortion, the ERA and sexual preference.
But some observers questioned the tactic, especially since some of the final votes were so close that one vote -- and certainly 90 -- could have made a difference.
One of the leaders of the so-called "pro-family coalition" was Larry Pratt, a Fairfax County delegate to the Virginia General Assembly. This week, Pratt defended the groups's decision to leave the conference.
"The whole thing was a fraud perpetuated on the American people by the White House to shut out alternate points of view," Pratt said. "By staying, we would have given legitimacy to something that was tainted right from the beginning."
Pratt said one of his objections was the way delegates from other states were chosen. He contended that the rules were skewed in such a way to limit conservative participation in the conference.
"After they saw that conservatives were winning in Virginia," he contended, "they changed the rules so that only one-third could be elected elsewhere."
John Carr, executive director of the conference, said in an interview this week that Pratt's contention was wrong. Carr said the delegates selection rules were adopted "Sept. 7, 1979, and not a comma has been changed."
"The rules called for 30 percent of the delegates to be elected or selected randomly by the states," Carr said, "30 percent to be appointed by the governor and 30 percent would be chosen in any manner which was acceptable to the conference."
Carr also noted that this was the first White House conference on any subject which had open election of delegates. "We have gone further than any other conference to assure grass roots participation," Carr said.
Pratt, a conservative Republican who represents southern Fairfax County in the state House of Delegates conceded that on at least one proposal, a resolution to end discrimination against homosexuals, the pro-family coalition could have defeated the proposal if it had stayed. The resolution was approved by only one vote.
"Yes, our staying would have made a difference on that vote," he said, "but there was an entire range of issues where our viewpoint was swallowed up. We left to dramatize our position."
Pratt was joined in the walkout by Connie Marshner, national chairman of the pro-family coalition, and Vance Wilkins, chairman of the Virginia delegation. Of the 36 Virginia delegates, about half left the conference, including several from Northern Virginia.
One of the Virginia delegates who chose to stay at the conference was Phyllis Barton, from the Mount Vernon area. Borton termed the walkout by the dissidents a "cop-out," and added, "(by leaving) they were circumventing the Democratic process that they accuse others of not following."
Barton, who headed a delegation task force on family life education, said the conservative coalition should have stayed and voted, thus making their concerns known.
She also took exception to their claims of unfair delegation selection.
"The nominating procedure in Virginia was fair," she said. "Anyone could fill out a nomination form, both from professional and non-professional groups."
Some of the dissidents say they felt that the wide margins of approval for some measures they opposed, such as national health care, indicated their presence at the conference would not have made any difference in the outcome of conference decision.
"It was like a poker game," said delegation Chairman Wilkins. "When you're dealing with a stacked deck, you tip over the tables, pick up your money and go home."
Pro-family coalition national Chairman Marshner said the fight to oppose liberal views will continue at family conferences scheduled this summer in Minneapolis and Los Angeles.
She contends that the credibility of the White House conference has been severely damaged by the questions raised not only about procedures, but the issues ultimately supported by the conference.
"They are not representative of the mainstream of American thinking," Marshner said. "The people have said they don't want government interfering with the family. But we're going to give the White House another chance."