One Side Fits All? Not in Montgomery County, Maryland

In a ruling that may create ripples throughout the nation’s public schools, Federal District Court Judge Alexander Williams, Jr. decided on May 5 to issue a temporary restraining order directing the Montgomery County, Md., Public Schools to halt planned field testing of its revised health education curriculum. Why? According to Judge Williams, the public school curriculum attempts to impose morality on students by promoting one religious perspective regarding homosexuality over other religious views. Having thoroughly read the MCPS curriculum, I agree.

Superintendent of the MCPS, Dr. Jerry Weast followed the ruling quickly with his own ruling: scrap the curriculum and the controversial condom demonstration video for this year. Further, he acknowledged there might be factual problems with the condom video and instructed his staff that the whole enterprise needed a re-evaluation. Albeit late, Dr. Weast’s decision was bold and courageous.

For a process that had been underway for several years, the court decision was a rapid turn in the road. The suit was brought against the MCPS by an ad hoc parents group called the Citizens for Responsible Curriculum and Virginia based Parents and Friends of Ex-gays and Gays. People in these groups have been attempting to bring some balance to the curriculum since 2002. At that time, the MCPS board of education directed an advisory committee to review the health curriculum and suggest ways to discuss homosexuality in schools. Various individuals now associated with the plaintiffs in the suit suggested information to the advisory committee that would have provided the balanced perspective Judge Williams said was missing, only to have them rejected.

After numerous appeals to the school board for balance, the parents groups went to court. In his ruling, Judge Williams took issue with the general approach of the curriculum and the resources used to support the teaching instructions. He wrote:

In this case, Defendants [MCPS] open up the classroom to the subject of homosexuality, and specifically, the moral rightness of the homosexual lifestyle. However, the Revised Curriculum presents only one view on the subject — that homosexuality is a natural and morally correct lifestyle — to the exclusion of other perspectives. — CRC vs. MCPS

For instance, the curriculum promotes the brochure “Just the Facts About Sexual Orientation and Youth” as a resource for teachers. Published by several organizations, including the National Education Association, the brochure criticizes religious perspectives that believe sexual preference is flexible. An example of the juxtaposition of religious views is the following statement from the brochure:

Although “transformational ministry” promotes the message that religious faith and acceptance of gay, lesbian, and bisexual sexuality are incompatible, that message is countered by the large number of outspoken clergy and people of faith who promote love and acceptance. In other words, one version of religion should be viewed by teachers and students as bad and another as good.

Regarding this kind of partiality, Judge Williams quoted court case Larson v. Valente as precedent saying, “The clearest command of the Establishment Clause is that one religious denomination cannot be officially preferred over another.”

Another Montgomery County curricular resource opined, “Fortunately, many within organized religions are beginning to address the homophobia of the church.” Following this value loaded statement, a list of denominations are listed that “support full civil rights for gay men and lesbians, as they do for everyone else.” Again, students would be given the impression that the school favors the views of these denominations and religions over the views of those deemed to reflect “the homophobia of the church.”

Judge Williams rightly took a dim view of such favoritism in an educational context. He wrote, “The Court does not understand why it is necessary, in attempting to achieve the goals of advocating tolerance and providing health-related information, Defendants [MCPS] must offer up their opinion on such controversial topics as whether homosexuality is a sin, whether AIDS is God’s judgment on homosexuals, and whether churches that condemn homosexuality are on theologically solid ground.”

In fact, as Judge Williams notes, viewpoint discrimination is not necessary to advocate for tolerance. Not only is it possible to have schools where respect is the standard and all sides are represented, one cannot truly have a tolerant environment when one perspective regarding a significant matter of conscience is systematically eliminated in favor of another. On matters touching faith and personal belief, schools cannot indoctrinate.

Health educators and school administrators around the country would do well to examine the implications of this case for their districts. Many schools use the “Just the Facts” brochures as a resource. And recently, a man in Massachusetts was arrested because he “trespassed” on school property to express his demand that he be allowed to opt his 6 year-old out of lessons promoting a view of homosexuality with which he disagreed.

Where other schools promote a one side fits all approach, I suspect there are parents ready to seek their day in court.