HELENA - Several board members of the Montana Family Coalition have left the conservative lobbying group to head a new Montana nonprofit affiliated with the powerful national organization Focus on the Family.
And Rep. Jeff Laszloffy, R-Laurel, plans to retire from state politics when his term expires in early 2005 to serve as the full-time executive director of the new group, called the Montana Family Foundation.
The Montana Family Coalition, which lost three board members to the foundation, is restructuring its board, according to coalition executive director Julie Millam of Helena.
"This is not the same organization (as the Montana Family Coalition)," Laszloffy said during a phone interview last week. "The Legislature is not our sole focus. It is part of what we do, but we are not here on the ground strictly trying to influence public policy."
The directors of Montana Human Rights Network, a group that monitors politically active groups, said this migration from the Montana Family Coalition to the Montana Family Foundation mirrors the national shift in power from the Christian Coalition to Focus on the Family.
Focus on the Family is much larger and more influential than the Christian Coalition ever was, said Sen. Ken Toole, D-Helena, and co-director of the human rights network.
And groups tend to reincarnate themselves once they've made too many enemies or picked up too much baggage, said Rep. Christine Kaufmann, D-Helena, the network's co-director.
"These groups from the religious right come and go," Kaufmann said. "Their names may change, their tactics may change, but it's really the same people running the same agenda."
The board members who moved from the coalition to the foundation are no longer on the coalition board, Millam said, adding that neither group wants a conflict of interest. Millam herself will remain the coalition's executive director but may serve as an adviser to the foundation, she added.
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Laszloffy said the Montana Family Foundation will have a broader focus than the public-policy driven Montana Family Coalition.
Patterned after the successful "family policy councils" that Focus on the Family has established in 39 states, the Montana Family Foundation plans to offer marriage mentoring through local churches, Laszloffy said.
The group also plans to build a network of churches that won't marry couples until they complete marriage counseling. A similar program in Georgia dropped the marriage rate in one county by 7 percent, Laszloffy said.
"These young people looked at each other and said 'We're not ready to get married,' " Laszloffy said. "If you can catch people at that stage before they get married, you decrease the divorce rate on the other end."
The Montana Family Foundation will also launch television, radio and print commercials on the responsibilities of parenting. Lobbying the Legislature will be one of the group's tasks, but not the group's sole agenda, Laszloffy added.
Similar to the Montana Family Coalition, the group won't endorse political candidates. But unlike the coalition, any donations made to the foundation will be tax deductible, Laszloffy added.
Millam said the Montana Family Foundation will serve as the "mother ship" to the state's other socially focused conservative groups. She said her coalition will lobby in the next Legislature.
"Together, we're going to have a bigger lobbying presence," Millam said. "We just have to iron out some details, but it's looking good."