Sex as Religion in America’s Public Schools

Try this one on for size: Religious conservatives are fighting to keep America’s public schools free from religion.  And they have been doing so for a long time.

Here’s the catch: the religion they want excluded is the awkwardly named faith of “sexualityism.”  The campaign by some conservative intellectuals to ban this newly identified theology joins a long history of conservative attempts to reframe secular, liberal, “progressive” ideology.  Such ideas as the relativism of value systems and the virtues of commitment-free sex, these conservative argue, are actually theological ideas.  As such, the conservative argument goes, the fabled wall of separation between church and state requires that they be kept far away from public schools.

For example, writing recently for the conservative journal Public Discourse, Greg Pfundstein denounced a new sex policy in New York City schools.  As we’ve noted here, the Connecting Adolescents to Comprehensive Health (CATCH) program offers contraception to public-school students without parental notification.  The program recently expanded to include “morning-after” pills, in addition to condoms and birth-control pills.

Pfundstein insisted that this program made no sense from a public-health perspective.  Instead, Pfundstein argued, “This is the work of religious fanatics, and their religion is sexualityism.”

At the core of programs such as CATCH, Pfundstein concluded, is nothing less than a “theocracy of the sexual emancipation of children.”

The strategy of identifying secular ideology in public schools as a religion has a storied history among conservatives.  In the 1920s, as I argue in my 1920s book, much of the anti-evolution fervor among religious conservatives resulted from the identification of evolutionary ideas as profoundly religious.  In this case, conservatives argued that evolution was merely atheism in disguise.

More recently, beginning in the 1970s, conservatives attacked public-school ideology as “secular humanism.”  Conservative writers, intellectuals, and activists insisted that public-school curricula embodied the religion of secular humanism, and, as such, violated the First Amendment ban on state-supported religion in public schools.

Perhaps the political high-water mark for this strategy came on May 12, 1976.  US Representative John Conlan of Arizona successfully amended a bill about the financing of higher education to include a denunciation of secular humanism.  As Conlan argued on the floor of the House,

“there is a significant current in education to teach children that there are no values, there is no right, there is no wrong, that everything is relative, and it all depends upon situational ethics.  This is the heart of the First Secular Humanist Manifesto of 1933 and the [13533] Second Secular Humanist Manifesto of 1973.

            “What we are really saying is that much of the social problems that are being dealt with in the schools came from the premise that there are no moral or religious principles.  What I am saying is that since we cannot teach and will not fund those grants and programs to develop the Judaic-Christian ethical concepts, then it seems to me fair that those curriculums opposed to Judaic-Christian concepts should also not be funded.  That is all we are asking.      

            “I have in my hand here the recently published Humanist Magazine article which brags that ‘humanism is alive and thriving in secondary schools.’  But we could go on and on documenting the case of what is happening in our schools.” (Source: Congressional Record, May 12, 1976, pg. 13532-13533)

This argument has had some success in courtrooms.  Most famously, the plaintiffs in Mozert v. Hawkins County (1987) had initial success with their claims.  Though a federal circuit court eventually disagreed, early hearings supported the Mozerts’ claim that textbooks in public schools ought not teach ideas that promoted “secular humanism.”

Could this strategy change the argument about sex-ed in public schools?  Could it shift the debate from talk of public health to talk of public religion?

If the history of conservative attempts to ban “secular humanism” is any guide, the answer is likely no.  In Mozert v. Hawkins County, for instance, federal judges eventually ruled that the Mozerts’ did not have a significant claim to have been harmed.  In essence, the judges disagreed that “secular humanism” represented a state-sponsored religion.

The same will likely be true with the awkwardly named “sexualityism.”  The religious nature of teaching sexuality seems plausible, but courts and public opinion will likely continue to see the public-health benefits of sex ed outweighing the religious objections of conservatives.

“If You’re Planning to Have Sex…”

What should schools be teaching America’s young people about sex?  This is a question that has snarled culture-war arguments about public education for decades.  Sex ed proponents often insist that they can teach a morally neutral approach—just the facts.  This attitude is ridiculously oversimplified.  There is and can be no morally neutral approach to a subject that is so intimately wrapped up in religion and ethics.

Let me be clear at the outset: I personally believe public schools should teach a comprehensive curriculum in sexuality that includes discussions about both the mechanics and morals of sex.  But the common argument that sex ed can be done in a morally neutral fashion relies on a woefully naïve self-understanding.

This liberal tradition begins with a powerful argument in favor of public-school sex ed.  Many sex ed proponents make the strong case that sex is a potentially deadly game.  Since kids are going to do it, they need information to stay safe and avoid unintentional pregnancies.  With the prevalence of HIV and possible pregnancy, the argument goes, this is literally a life-or-death situation.  Refusing to educate young people about sex in a frank and open manner would be a nearly criminal malfeasance on the part of responsible public-school educators.  Yet due to dunderheaded conservative opposition, many sex educators feel, this vital information is often censored.

Perhaps the most famous example of this position was the beleaguered Mary Calderone.  As historian Jeff Moran described in Teaching Sex: The Shaping of Adolescence in the 20th Century, Calderone headed SIECUS, the Sex (later Sexuality) Information and Education Council of the United States beginning in 1963.  The stated goal of the organization, in gendered 1960s language, was “to establish man’s sexuality as a health entity.”  Calderone wanted sex to be understood as a positive thing.  “We must block our habit of considering sex as a ‘problem’ to be ‘controlled’,” she wrote in 1963.  Rather, Calderone argued, “Emphasis must be on sex as a vital life force to be utilized.”  In spite of the reputation Calderone gained as a wild-eyed sex maniac, Calderone remained relatively old fashioned.  She believed sex ed should encourage the ultimate goal of healthy marriages, for instance.  The SIECUS plan insisted it took a “moral-neutrality” approach.  It promised to deluge students with information, not preaching, about sex and sexuality.

Like that of SIECUS in the 1960s, the rationale of sex-ed advocates in subsequent decades has often gone as follows: sex educators in public schools do not encourage young people to have sex.  They merely suggest that if students are going to have sex, they must have the knowledge to do it safely.

For instance, as Laura Sessions Stepp has argued in recent days about a New York City program to provide the “morning after” pill to public-school students without parental consent, merely making information and even contraception available to young people does not encourage sex.

Whatever scientific evidence may suggest, however, proponents of sex ed in public schools often utterly misunderstand the thinking of religious conservatives.  It is difficult for those of us who support public-school sex ed to wrap our minds around the conservative position.  But if we are going to have respectful, productive discussions about sex ed, we must make the effort.

In short, for many religious conservatives, sex ed can never be a neutral message.  Having an adult, perhaps a teacher, stand in front of a group of young people and say, “If you’re going to have sex, here are some ways to do it safely,” suggests that having sex is a legitimate and respectable option for young people.  It encourages young people, some religious conservatives think, to think of themselves as people who might be having sex.

How can we make sense of this conservative position?  We might start with a few analogies.
For example, imagine a parallel situation in Family and Consumer Science, the class formerly known as Home Ec.  Imagine a teacher planned to inform students about the importance of kitchen hygiene.  “If you’re planning on making a ham-and-cheese sandwich,” the teacher might say, “here are some ways to do it safely.”

It is not difficult for us to imagine that a student from a Jewish background might not want to make a ham-and-cheese.  And, with our understanding of the goals and nature of public education, we can agree that such a student should never be forced to make a sandwich that breaks his or her religious rules.  Such a student could make something else.  Or he could be exempted from the class.  No big deal.  Simply because we do not share the student’s understanding of what may be offensive, we do not force the student to abandon that understanding.

In cases such as this, we should remember the words of former Chief Justice of the US Supreme Court Warren Burger.  In Thomas v. Review Board (1981), Chief Justice Burger argued that those who are not compelled by religious rules are not the ones who should decide whether or not those rules are reasonable.  “It is not for us to say,” Burger argued, “that the line [Thomas] drew was an unreasonable one.”

Granted, the case was not about public schools, or sex ed, but the principle remains important.  It is not the role of those who are not offended to declare whether or not certain ideas are offensive.

Perhaps another way to understand this case might be to imagine some permutations.  Consider, for example, how we would feel if a teacher told a class, “Now class, if you’re thinking about killing someone, here are some ways to do it safely.”  Clearly, when we agree that behaviors are beyond the bounds of morality, we agree that public-school teachers ought not be suggesting safe ways for students to engage in them.

That may be the position of religious conservatives.  If an action is entirely beyond the bounds of morality, the notion that young people need to be taught how to do it safely makes utterly no sense.  Simply broaching the topic implies that sex would be a legitimate choice for young people, a position their religion explicitly forbids.

So how can public schools provide information without offending conservative religious families?  It will make a start to understand the complaints of conservative parents as legitimate.  Just as we would not question a Jewish student’s aversion to making a ham-and-cheese, so we should not attack a religious student’s aversion to hearing about safer ways to have sex.  For many sex-ed liberals, myself included, this is a difficult pill to swallow.  It feels as if we are allowing some families to stick their heads in the sand, to restrict their children from hearing vitally important safety information.  Nevertheless, if we honestly respect the home cultures of students from conservative homes, we must allow them to draw the lines between offensive and acceptable.  We can never insist that our understanding of “morally neutral” must be accepted by those who disagree.



Fundamentalists Against CATCH

The headlines say it all.  Concerned Women for America’s article announces, “New York City Schools: Reading, Writing, and Morning-After Pills.”  The Family Research Council denounces “New York’s Deadliest CATCH.”

The Family Research Council’s Take on “the Deadliest CATCH”

Sifting through the arguments from these prominent conservative organizations will give us some insight into what religious conservatives dislike about New York City’s Connecting Adolescents to Comprehensive Health (CATCH) program.  As the CWA headline suggests, the program expands the district’s free-condom program to include birth control pills and “morning-after” pills.  As ILYBYGTH has reported, the NY Board of Health has insisted that a very low rate of parent opt-out suggests that most parents find the program inoffensive.

Fundamentalists beg to differ.

Both CWA and FRC point out the absurdity of a school system in which parents must provide copious paperwork in order for schools to provide basic medicine for schoolchildren, yet those same schools will administer Plan B pills without parental notification.  As the FRC briefing notes, “The same nurse’s office that demands a parents’ note for aspirin will be in the position to administer high (and potentially dangerous) doses of hormones to children as young as 14 without so much as a permission slip.”

Such contradictions, both groups insist, indicate the plan is both dangerous and insidious.  “Suppose [a student] has severe side effects from the pill but is afraid to tell her parents?”  CWA’s Brenda Zurita asks.  “It’s late at night or perhaps a weekend, what will she do? Who will she call?. . . Let’s pray that no young girl will die due to complications she was afraid to tell her parents about after she was encouraged at school to hide her sexual activity from her parents.”

Also worrisome, according to both reports, are the results of increased sexual behavior among teen-age girls.  The FRC report cites a 2010 study that finds such birth-control medications increase STIs among young women.

According to the FRC, the root of this problem is an inverted understanding of the proper role between parents, children, and government.  The FRC describes the “Nanny State” ideology at play: “If moms and dads can’t be trusted to ensure that their kids are eating well, then they certainly can’t be trusted with decisions about sex and abortion. So the government takes away chocolate milk because it’s too fattening–only to turn around and give kids the morning-after pill, which can really kill.”

Concerned Women for America’s Zurita agrees.  This program, Zurita insists, is yet another example of an “out-of-control bureaucracy.” “It is frightening and tragic,” Zurita warns, “that there are parents who do not care what their children are doing, and with each example of government intruding between parents and children, this story is fast becoming the norm.”

Finally, CWA’s Zurita raises a powerful point.  The NYC Board of Health has claimed that a low parental opt-out rate means this program is not upsetting parents.  But as Zurita notes, many parents could simply be unaware of the program.  Since when do schools assume that every announcement sent home with students has been dutifully delivered to parents?  With non-controversial notices such as bad report cards, students are required to return parent signatures to prove that parents actually saw the notice.  But with a more profoundly morally complex notice such as this, the school district simply assumes that students shared the information with parents?

In the eyes of these fundamentalist activist organizations, something stinks with New York’s CATCH.

CATCH-ing Up and Opting Out

ILYBYGTH reported yesterday on a new pilot program in New York City high schools.  The program, Connecting Adolescents to Comprehensive Health, or CATCH, will expand the district’s condom-distribution program to include birth control pills and “morning-after” pills.

This morning, we read Catholic League President Bill Donohue’s denunciation of this “imperial edict” in an interview in the Christian Post.  “Whenever it comes to sensitive issues such as sexuality, the government must  always play an ancillary role to that of parents,” Donohue told the CP. “The provision  that parents can opt out smacks of governmental arrogance and must be resisted:  the government has no business eclipsing parental rights.”

Bill Donohue as the Wild-Eyed Pope on South Park’s “Fantastic Easter Special”

I am usually no fan of

Bill Donohue.  I find myself siding more often with the South Park send-up of his public-morality campaigns.  But in this case, I find his criticism of CATCH more compelling than the lame defense offered by Chanel Caraway of the NYC Board of Health.  Since only 1-2% of parents had opted out of the program, Caraway told ABC News, “this suggests that parents are OK with the service being available to their children.”

Again, please don’t misunderstand.  I support the CATCH program and its goals.  I would want my daughter to be able to get free condoms and contraceptives at school if she couldn’t get them elsewhere.

However, Caraway’s opt-out argument demonstrates a frightening ignorance of America’s educational history.  In prominent cases such as Engel v. Vitale (1962) and Abington Township School District v. Schempp (1963), the US Supreme Court specifically concluded that “opt-out” provisions do not adequately respect families’ and children’s rights to be free of religious coercion.

As Justice Clark argued in his majority decision in Schempp, “Nor are these required exercises mitigated by the fact that individual students may absent themselves upon parental request, for that fact furnishes no defense to a claim of unconstitutionality under the Establishment Clause.”

I understand that this is a very different case.  Clark referred to the unconstitutionality of school-sponsored prayer.  It did not matter whether or not parents could opt out if the program defied Constitutional freedoms.  However, issues of sexuality are intimately connected to religious values for many students and families.  Could not a Bill Donohue argue that such state-imposed sexuality–even with an opt-out provision–denied some students their Constitutional right to free exercise of religion?  To assume that an opt-out clause defuses any potential complaint from conservative religious families seems ignorant at best, and, as Donohue put it, “imperial” at worst.

Schools, Sex, and the War that Isn’t

Sex in our Public Schools is in the news again.  How about this for a headline: “No One Cares”?

It doesn’t promise to get a lot of readers.  But it seems the closest to the truth in this case.

Here’s the story: Thirteen public high schools in New York City will now dispense free contraceptives to high-school students, including the morning-after “Plan B.” As reported by the New York Times and the New York Post, the pilot program, Connecting Adolescents to Comprehensive Health, or CATCH, will supply students with free condoms, birth-control pills, and/or the morning-after pill.

According to the NYT, the new program has not caused any of the traditional controversy.  Only 1-2% of parents returned an opt-out form.  Yet the headlines from more conservative media have emphasized the outrageousness of the new program.  Glenn Beck’s The Blaze declared, “File this one under ‘controversial.'” Fox News’ headline announced, “Parents not told NYC schools dispensing morning-after pill.”

But is a program controversial if it doesn’t raise any controversy?  We are remined of Ben Justice’s terrific 2005 book The War That Wasn’t.  Justice examined nineteenth-century discussions in New York about religion and culture in public schools.  In most cases, Justice argued, “the warfare thesis” does not explain the way schools really work (9).  People usually resolve their disputes about schooling peacefully and even amicably.

That might be the case here.  However, simply because only a small minority of parents have opted out does not mean that most parents support the program.  It might simply mean that parents are not aware of the program.  Or that parents are not aware of their opt-out option.

After all, the fact that very few families complained about prayer and Bible reading in 1960s schools does not prove that such policies were uncontroversial.  It simply means that school policies often fly under the radar until enough parents and activists complain.  In this case, we might still get a public debate over the propriety of issuing birth-control pills to high-school students.  This certainly seems to be the hope of editors at The Blaze and Fox News.