President Carter today opened the White House Conference on Families with a pledge to shape government policies in ways that will support the family as an institution and the basis of society.
"We do not want government in our kitchens, bedrooms and living rooms, monitoring and controlling family life. But we know that government does touch our families through the tax system, through public education, through Social security and through a whole range of health, housing and human service programs," Carter said.
But even as Carter was vowing to shore up the family through government action, conservative critics were picketing the entrance to the Baltimore Convention Center. They claimed Carter had stacked the conference with liberals who will refuse to take action against abortion, the absence of prayer from the public schools and public employment of homesexuals, which they say will undermine the family.
Carter did not spell out what the policies he believes are harming the family, but former representative Jim Guy Tucker, the chairman of the conference, mentioned what he believes are harmful to the family in opening remarks before introducing Carter.
Tucker told the delegates that in 20 states, "the family must break up" to qualify for welfare, which is not paid if there is a huband or father in the home, even if he is jobless.
Tucker also said that under the law, a woman who stays in the home as a wife and mother for less than 10 years -- even nine years, 11 months and 364 days -- and then is divorced by her husband, loses all right to future Social Security benefits based on that marriage.
He said the tax laws, including the so-called "marriage penalty," under which some married couples pay higher federal taxes than if they were single and living together with the same income, are another example off federal policy that undermines the family.
"If we can do so much for the snail darter," referring to the halted construction of a federal dam because it would kill schools of the tiny fish, "we can do a bit for the family too."
President Carter told the delegates to this first of three regional conferences that he had called for a White House Conference on Families four years ago because he wants a "new awareness in the government of the importance of families" and an assessment of what government policies help or hurt families.
However, groups of conservative critics of government activities said Carter's alleged concern for the family is belied by his refusal to support policies which they said would genuinely sustain the family.
At a press conference just before Carter spoke, Paul Weyrich, head of The Free Congress Research and Education Foundation, and Connie Marshner, chairman of the National Pro-Family Coalition, said Carter has an abysmal record on family issues.
"He has the worst record for family issues for any president in history," said Weyrich. They said he had stacked the conference to make sure only liberal delegates who favor existing government programs would be in control.
Weyrich said Tucker had carefully manipulated delegate selection to make sure policies, that in Weyrich's opinion would really help the family, would be excluded from the final recommendations: defining the family only as persons who are related (thereby excluding possible definition of the family to include homosexual couples and religious sects); barring abortion and guaranteeing the "right to life from the moment of conception;" favoring prayer in the schools and opposing public employment of homosexuals.
Marshner said her "pro-family" group, which she estimated has 25 percent of the delegates, will attempt to force the issues in voting sessions Friday and Saturday.
However, a group of middle-of-the-road to liberal organizations, called the Coalition for the White House Conference on Families, made clear at its own press conference that it will oppose the Marshner-Weyrich proposals.
The group of 54 organizations including the U.S. Catholic Conference, the American Public Welfare Association, National Urban League, National Council of Jewish Women and other church and welfare groups, described a series of policy recommendations: correction of the laws mentioned by Tucker, improved health care for families, outlays for social services and day care and improved employment opportunities through government action for families with low incomes.
This recommendations off the Baltimore White House conference will be combined with recommendations from similar conferences in Minneapolis later this month and Los Angeles early in July and submitted to the president and Congress.
The Marshner-Weyrich group will hold its own conference, called the American Family Forum, in Washington, D.C., June 30 to July 2.