Is Sex Ed Religious Persecution? Is Evolution?

Am I persecuted if my kid is taught sex ed that goes against my religious beliefs?  That’s the question coming out of Arizona this morning.

And it has echoes far beyond the questions of contraception and sex ed.  If kids have a constitutional right to protection from ideas that challenge their religions, it will change the ways we teach evolution, history, literature…really, everything.  But so far, courts have generally not recognized conservatives’ claims of religious persecution. The good news is that there is a simple solution, though it’s one that everyone might hate.

But that doesn’t stop conservatives from making their cases.  As the New York Times reports, a new sex-ed textbook controversy is roiling school politics in Arizona.  Back in 2012, conservatives pushed through a state law mandating that adoption be given preferential treatment in schools.  That is, children in Arizona public schools have to be nudged toward thinking of adoption as a more moral choice than abortion.  An alert parent noticed that a commonly used biology textbook discussed contraception, including the drug mefipristone. According to the NYT, mefipristone can be used to terminate a pregnancy.

A pro-choice lemur...

A pro-choice lemur…

In Gilbert, Arizona, a suburb of Phoenix, the school board voted narrowly that the information violated the 2012 law. What to do? The Gilbert school board ruled that two textbook pages must be removed, somehow.

So far, so ho-hum.  In school controversies, textbooks have been snipped, blacked-out, removed, even burned.  What’s more, the narrative told by conservative school board member Julie Smith seems almost like pages from a tired old script. As I note in my upcoming book about educational conservatism in the twentieth century, nearly every conservative activist has told a similar story. From the 1920s to the 1970s, conservatives have insisted that they were floored by the salacious, socialist, or heretical material their kids brought home from school.

Mrs. Smith brings this tradition into 2014. As she told the New York Times, when her son told her what he was learning about contraception, “I almost drove off the road.”

But Mrs. Smith did not stop with this old chestnut. She also insisted that including this material in textbooks represented an unconstitutional abuse of her religious freedom. As she told the NYT, by having her son read about contraception, the schools “have violated my religious rights.”

Is Smith right? Do religious conservatives have a constitutional right to free exercise of religion in public schools? Is that right violated when public schools force students to learn ideas that contradict their religions?

This question received the most thorough examination in the tortuous path traced by the case of Hawkins County, Tennessee, in the late 1980s. Parents complained that textbooks promoted a bevy of anti-Christian ideas, including secular humanism and occultism. These conservative parents wanted to have their children exempted from reading such anti-religious material.

Mozert makes his case...

Mozert makes his case…

The conservative parents had some initial success in court, but eventually the 6th circuit court ruled against them. In the opinion of that court, the children did not have the right to protection from exposure to mainstream ideas. If the children had been forced to perform religious acts, the court ruled, the parents would have had a better case. But public schools have a duty, not just a right, to expose children to the best current knowledge about every subject, including presumably sex ed.

It’s not for me to tell conservatives what to do, but in this case, it seems Julie Smith is pursuing a losing strategy. Claiming to be religiously persecuted because children are exposed to mainstream ideas is not going to work. If, instead, conservatives could claim that their children were being forced to perform religious acts, conservatives would have a better case.

And, IMHO, contraception is not the right issue for conservatives to pursue with this strategy. Public schools don’t FORCE students to use contraception. Schools simply give students information about contraception.

Conservatives might have a better shot with evolution. Folks like me want to give every person in the United States more information about evolution. There is nothing religious about this goal. For me and other evolution mavens, evolution simply represents the best current science, and students must be exposed to the best current knowledge in every field.

The way I see it, exposing students to knowledge does not violate anyone’s religious rights. But here’s the kicker: The fact that I have a secular purpose in teaching evolution does not mean that evolution does not have religious meanings for others. Again, I don’t want to dictate political strategy to conservatives, but it seems to me creationists could have some success if they claimed that their children have a constitutional right to a certain sort of protection from evolutionary ideas in public schools. Not a right to be protected from hearing or reading those ideas. That would count as simple exposure.

But creationist kids WOULD have a right to be protected from performing religious acts in public schools. For some religious groups, saying that humans evolved from other animals is a religious act. For some religious groups, saying that the earth is billions of years old is a religious act.

In other words, IMHO, public schools have a right and a duty to expose all children to the best current knowledge in all fields. In biology, that means human evolution without any supernatural guidance. In geology, that means an ancient earth and cosmos. At the same time, however, creationist kids have a right to freely practice their religions. And they have a right to insist that the government does not push religious actions upon them. If their religion forbids them from saying that the earth is ancient, kids have a right not to be coerced into saying such things.

This may seem like an unsolvable situation, but there is a simple solution. Public schools and public school teachers have a simple two-word answer to all these conundrums. Instead of pushing students to say that the earth is ancient and that humans have evolved, teachers need only to help students to understand that scientists think these things to be true.

By letting kids say “Scientists say” humans evolved; by letting kids say “Scientists say” the earth is ancient, public schools protect themselves from charges of religious indoctrination. And at the same time, creationists get schools that will not be hostile to their faiths.

The bad news for Julie Smith from Gilbert, Arizona is that she cannot claim any similar sort of constitutional protection. Even if the fact that her son is learning about contraception causes her to drive her car off the road, the public school is not persecuting her by teaching such things.