The constant issue running through local education battles -- and the thread connecting fundamentalists in towns like Church Hill and Hillsboro -- is what these Christian activists call "secular humanism."

An amorphous concept drawn from Renaissance Europe and revived in the United States in a tiny movement of the 1930s, secular humanism has been defined broadly by New Right fundamentalists to encompass pretty much anything they dislike in public schools. Said Barbara Parker of People for the American Way, "Trying to define secular humanism is like trying to nail Jello to a tree."

Humanism is the philosophical belief in man's dignity and self-realization through reason. Christian fundamentalists trace humanism's supposed rise in America's classrooms to the fact that education pioneer John Dewey was one of the signers of the first Humanist Manifesto, in 1933. According to the New Right, humanists have "infiltrated" public education through their training in graduate schools of education, and are indoctrinating children in humanism.

The view of humanism as the antithesis of Christianity in a struggle for young minds was further fueled by publication of a 1983 article in Humanist, the official journal of the American Humanist Association. That article was a student essay by John J. Dunphy submitted for a literary contest. It said:

"I am convinced that the battle for humankind's future must be waged and won in the public school classroom by teachers who correctly view their role as the proselytizers of a new faith . . . ." The article also said, "The classroom must and will become an arena of conflict between the old and the new -- the rotting corpse of Christianity, together with all its adjacent evils and misery, and the new faith of humanism . . . ."

That quotation has been reprinted in court papers, repeated by fundamentalists, and even used by President Reagan to demonstrate humanist designs for total control of education.

But what the critics fail to point out, according to Frederick Edwords, executive director of the American Humanist Association, is that the article's author was a student and not an official in any humanist group, and the magazine that printed it later carried a disclaimer that called Dunphy's view "extreme and irresponsible."

Even without precise definition, secular humanism has been incorporated into federal law. Last year, Congress passed a little-noticed provision in the Education For Economic Security Act that prohibited federal magnet school money from being used for "any course of instruction the substance of which is secular humanism."

Conservatives also pressured the Education Department last year to issue regulations implementing the 1978 Protection of Pupil Rights Amendment, sponsored by Sen. Orrin G. Hatch (R-Utah), which prohibits schools from engaging in pyschological testing of students without their parents' approval. Parents'-rights activists have consistently cited secular humanism as tantamount to psychologically testing students.