Try as he might to put off the sensitive domestic issues while he concentrates on the economy, President Reagan finds they keep snapping at ankles like troublesome terriers.
Now, in what might be termed "the Omnibus Domestic Conservative Act," such things as abortion, school prayer, homosexuality, and spouse abuse have been gathered together in what is sure to be controversial legislation. The proposal actually is called the "Family Protection Act," and one of its chief promoters is Sen. Paul Laxalt (R) of Nevada, the President's closest friend on Capitol Hill.
The bill is a gauntlet thrown before those who think the federal government has a major role to play in many areas relating to the family. It says, in essence, that Uncle Sam is just that -- an uncle who can observe and perhaps offer advice, but not a parent who has the final say on disciplinary or family matters.
Mr. Reagan did not specifically endorse the measure when it first was introduced in Congress last year (where it expired in committee), even though most of its conservative supporters backed him and Reagan generally approves of the things it advocates. The President so far has not said anything public about the Family Protection Act.
But women's groups and others are concerned. They view the bill seriously even though they are sure that some of its aspects are unconstitutional. "People are finally waking up to how real the threat from the right is," said one.
Among other things, the Family Protection Act:
* Forbids the federal government from preempting state law relating to child abuse (specifically, spanking) and domestic violence. Some have felt that the federal government should address the growing problem of spouse abuse, perhaps through funding shelters for "battered women."
* Requires that parents be notified when unmarried minor children receive contraceptives or abortion services from a federally funded agency or organization.
* Forbids the federal Legal Services Corporation, which provides legal aid to the poor, from taking cases involving abortion, divorce, busing to desegregate schools, or the advocacy of homosexuality.
* Removes from federal jurisdiction the question of whether boys and girls should engage in sports or other school activities together, allows voluntary prayer in public schools, gives parents the right to review textbooks and visit classrooms, and gives states the sole power to determine teacher qualifications.
Women's rights advocates rankle at such clauses as the one that "prevents federal funds from being used to promote educational material that denigrates the role of women as it has been historically understood."
Direct federal involvement with family life has become increasingly controversial in recent years. The White House Conference on the Family last year was noted more for its arguments over such things as the Equal Rights Amendment and sex education than for the relatively noncontroversial recommendations it adopted.
The 1980 Democratic Party platform claimed it was "morally right" for the federal government "to assist children in growing up whole, strong, and able," and referred to the family "in all its diverse forms." Republicans, in sharp contrast, expressed strong support for "protecting and defending the traditional American family."
President Reagan not only is bound to, but quite genuinely supports the latter view. He would rather not have to face these issues in such a confrontational manner, but he may have no choice now that conservatives have publicly launched their social philosophy package. Women's groups and liberals are gearing up for a fight over the bill. They see this year's political climate -- marked by the so-called Reagan mandate and growth of such groups as the Moral Majority -- as more conducive to passage.