BOSTON (RNS)--Religious activists and clergy gathered in Boston'shistoric Arlington Street Church recently to see if they could overcomeone of the enduring stereotypes of the American divide over abortion:that opponents of legal abortion are people of faith and supporters aresecularists.

"The religious community is about providing services to people whoneed them. We've been doing it since before abortion was legal," saidthe Rev. Katherine Hancock Ragsdale, who recently stepped down from hersix-year stint as chair of the national Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice.

Ragsdale and four other activists and clergy presented a paneldiscussion that was co-hosted by the Massachusetts branch of theNational Abortion Rights Action League, Planned Parenthood League ofMassachusetts, and the RCRC's Massachusetts affiliate.

Around 75 attended the Feb. 9 discussion, which covered topicsranging from hospitals merging with Catholic health care providers tolegislation that would provide a "buffer zone" around abortion clinics,to personal stories of the difficult work of pro-choice activism.

The RCRC has existed for 27 years, as long as the landmark Roe v.Wade Supreme Court decision legalizing most abortion in the UnitedStates. The RCRC has support from more than 40 religious groups andagencies in 15 denominations, and has affiliate branches in more than 40states. But the group receives little media attention, a fact thatmembers say perpetuates the idea that religious people are universallypro-life.

"The religious community is more vocal now because we've got tocounter the public perception--that if you're Christian, you'reanti-choice," said Ragsdale, an Episcopal priest who is vicar of St.David's church in Pepperell, Mass.

RCRC polling suggests the majority of religious people are in favorof reproductive choice, according to the group.

"Most people in my congregation are pro-choice. Most Protestants arepro-choice. Most religious people are pro-choice," said the Rev. RichardN. Chrisman, a United Church of Christ minister in the Bostonneighborhood Jamaica Plain.

Panelists repeatedly charged the conservative opposition toabortion represents a "fringe" element of the Republican Party and thereligious community.

"This is not a particularly partisan fight," said Ragsdale.

"Both parties have their shining knights, and both parties havefolks who have to be brought along," she added.

Chrisman said he feels the right wing of the evangelical Christiancommunity and within the Republican Party has garnered more attentionthan they deserve.

"There's a mouse with a megaphone that's persuading everybodythey're an elephant," he said.

Chrisman, who also serves as president of the RCRC of Massachusetts,said there are theological errors the religious right consistentlymakes, but they are able to persuade nonetheless.

"The evangelical right got organized and stole the media attention,"he said, "They oversimplified to the point where they looked right whenthey were wrong theologically."

One hotly debated theological point is when life begins. People whooppose abortion argue generally that life begins at conception, or even beforeconception, and therefore conclude abortion is murder.

But many RCRC supporters argue life does not actually begin untilbirth, even though the potential for life exists from the moment of conception.

"There is no such thing as an unborn child," said Rabbi Albert S.Goldstein, a panel member who has been a reproductive rights activistfor more than 50 years.

"Abortion is not murder. It is tragic. The stakes are high. But itis not murder," added Chrisman.

Ragsdale said that ultimately her movement's goals are more moralthan legal.

"This isn't an abstract political issue, this is a kid in ourcongregation. It's hard to close our eyes to that human cost and quotesome legislative or formulaic answer," she said.

"Our real goal isn't even legislative issues so much as trying tochangethe moral climate," she added, "If we do that, I think the legislativepieces will fall into place."