Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Same-sex Marriage and Children's Education

Proposition 8 and California's Schoolchildren: A Primer on Falsehoods

by Lowell Brown

Perhaps the most hotly-debated question about Proposition 8 is the measure's impact on schoolchildren. If Proposition 8 fails, will young children be taught that same-sex marriage is equal to traditional marriage? Opponents of Prop 8 have adamantly -- and falsely -- claimed this will not happen.

The fact is, Prop 8's leading opponents have been very public for a long time about their goal of teaching schoolchildren about gender orientation at very young ages. What is worse, they have openly promoted strategies for overcoming or circumventing parental objections to such teaching. It is foolish to believe they will not use the same approach to teaching children about same-sex marriage.

Why this matters

When it comes to private sexual practices generally, I've long been attracted to the view of English actress Beatrice Campbell: "I don't care what [people] do, so long as they don't do it in the street and scare the horses." My work colleagues and friends, and anyone who really knows me, know that I consider their personal lives to be just that: personal. All my friends, gay and straight, know I support them in seeking personal happiness. I support California's already very expansive laws providing for domestic partnerships, which, in Family Code Section 297.5, guarantees to registered domestic partners "the same rights, protections and benefits . . . as are granted to and imposed upon spouses." (Family Code, Sec. 297.5.)

But marriage is different, and so is teaching schoolchildren.

Most seven year-olds still need to learn how to sit up straight and cover their mouths when they sneeze. Kids don't need the schools teaching them about gender orientation -- an arcane and confusing subject to even the most precocious children -- before they have even thought about their own sexual identities.

Besides, if we are going to start teaching six year-old children that same-sex marriage is the same as traditional marriage, that's a decision that should be made by the people, not by four of the seven judges on the California Supreme Court.

The law on teaching schoolchildren about marriage

Misinformation about just what California's Education Code says about marriage has been flying around the internet and on television and radio ads by the No On 8 campaign. There is no doubt, however, what the Education Code requires as to teaching about marriage and families. Here's an excerpt from the key statute, Section 51933:

(b) A school district that elects to offer comprehensive sexual health education pursuant to subdivision (a), whether taught by school district personnel or outside consultants, shall satisfy all of the following criteria:

. . .

(7) Instruction and materials shall teach respect for marriage and committed relationships.
(Emphasis added.) According to the California Department of Education's website, 96% of California school districts provide sexual health education that places them under Section 51933's requirements. Can anyone reasonably deny that if Prop 8 fails, the instruction about "marriage" this statute refers to will include same-sex marriage?

What Prop 8's leading opponents have said about parental rights

The response to these concerns from from Prop 8's leading opponents has been that Prop 8 has nothing to do with schools. Amazingly, even the State Superintendent of Public Education has filmed a television ad promoting this falsehood.

Think about it: If the State Supreme Court has defined marriage to include same-sex unions, and schools are required to teach about respect for "marriage and committed relationships," well, it seems pretty obvious that from kindergarten on, kids will be learning about same-sex marriage, doesn't it?

But it gets worse. The other response from the No On 8 group has been that parents can simply "opt out" of instruction about gay marriage. This is another deception. The same people who make that claim have argued forcefully that no opt-out rights exist, as long as the instruction is part of "diversity education" encompassing gender orientation. They've even made their case in court.

Regarding opt-out rights, an organization called the California Safe Schools Coalition published A Question & Answer Guide for California School Officials & Administrators. The Coalition's Steering Committee includes The California Teachers Association, Equality California, American Civil Liberties Union chapters throughout California, State Senator Sheila Kuehl, and other prominent backers of No On 8 who have already raised millions of dollars to oppose the measure.

Here's one of the questions and answers:
Can parents 'opt out' of their children's participation in school programs that discuss sexual orientation and gender identity?

State law explicitly provides that “instruction or materials that discuss gender, sexual orientation, or family law and do not discuss human reproductive organs or their functions” is not subject to the parental notice and opt out laws. Thus, where issues of sexual orientation or gender identity are raised in school programs other than HIV/AIDS or sexual health education, such as programs designed to encourage respect and tolerance for diversity, parents are not entitled to have notice of or the opportunity to opt their children out of such programs. California law does not support a broad parental veto regarding the contents of public school instruction.
(Emphasis added.) Translation: If you are a California parent and think you have the right to opt your second-grader out of story time because the teacher is reading the students a book about a prince who marries a prince, you should think again. As long as story time is part of a program "designed to encourage respect and tolerance for diversity," you have nothing to say about whether your child participates. You won't even hear about the book unless your child comes home and mentions it to you.

The California Safe Schools Coalition also published on its web site a "Question and Answer Guide to California's Parental Opt-Out Laws." The Guide's goals include helping educators who are promoting "tolerance and diversity" to circumvent the opt-out laws, as evidenced by this question and answer from that guide:
Do parents have a constitutional right to prevent their children from receiving education in public schools on subjects they disapprove?

Almost never. Parents have filed a number of court cases seeking to prevent public schools from teaching their children controversial literature or subjects . . . and have lost virtually every case. Courts have held that so long as the public school curricula are secular and reasonably related to educational goals, parents do not have veto power over the content of public school instruction. . . . Schools may wish to excuse students from non-essential activities (such excusing a Jehovah's Witness student from a Valentine's Day party) but are not legally required to excuse students from curricular activities such as . . . diversity education. The interests of the school and student in education outweigh parents' interests in preventing their children from being exposed to ideas that conflict with religious traditions.
Here's the guide's concluding paragraph:
[By] carefully articulating the purpose and content of diversity education programs, schools can both fulfill their legal duty to ensure a safe and nondiscriminatory school environment for all students, and also avoid violating parents' notice and opt-out rights.
(Emphasis added.) So, you see, it's all a matter of how the schools set up their program. If they do that right, parents have no voice. The next time you hear a No On 8 spokesman tell you that parents need not worry about their kindergarteners being taught about same-sex marriage, think about the Question and Answer Guide to California's Parental Opt-Out Laws.

(Somewhat curiously, the Question and Answer Guide seems to have disappeared from the Safe Schools Coalition's web site. An e-mail correspondent sent me the Question and Answer Guide on October 23. By October 26, as I am writing this post, the guide no longer appears on the internet. The now-defunct URL is here.)

Proposition 8 raises serious and controversial issues. Instead of continually dissembling about the real facts and the law, it's time for the opponents of Prop 8 to get serious about addressing those issues.

And about telling the truth.