Wednesday, April 18, 2007

Considering the Endgame

The Citizens for a Responsible Curriculum's President, John Garza, said something interesting on TV a couple of weeks ago. He said:
We just want factually correct information given to the students and also just stay away from the religious implications of homosexuality. If they could do those two things we would probably back away and not be opposed any more.

They must know they can't win this. They've got no community support, the school district has totally sewn up any legal openings, the curriculum was developed by a team of doctors who made sure everything was medically accurate ... there's no way to stop implementation of this curriculum.

So it would not be unreasonable for them to begin thinking about how they can end this, and it appears from his comments that they have given it some thought. Because, the truth is, their persistence is wasting their own time as much as it wastes everybody else's.

Garza specifies two conditions that the CRC wants to see met, so they can "back away" from their opposition. Looking at the new curricula, it is possible to conclude that these conditions have been met.

The first thing is "factually correct information." I don't think they have ever pointed to any information in the curriculum that is factually incorrect. What they really mean is that they want different information. There are two main kinds of information they want. The number one thing has to do with anal sex and condoms, that's where they usually steer this kind of comment. So let's look at their complaint about that.

One of the new classes is a lesson in how to use a condom. The video that accompanies it says things like, "Condoms reduce, but do not eliminate, the risk of unwanted pregnancy or contracting sexually transmitted infections and disease, whenever there is oral, anal, or vaginal contact." Now, when the CRC says they want "factually correct information," what they usually mean is that they want the schools to add some statements about the dangers of anal sex.

There are two statements they specifically ask for. One is what they call "the Surgeon General's statement," though they typically forget to mention that the statement was made by a Surgeon General nearly twenty years ago, and that he was not even in office any more when he made the statement. The other thing is one quote out of an NIH report on the effectiveness of condoms for preventing STDs. The report shows that condoms are very effective in preventing a wide variety of kinds of infections, but there is one statement that notes that HIV is most frequently spread through anal sex, and that's what the CRC wants in the curriculum.

There is a similarity between these two statements, and that is that there is nothing to back them up. Surgeon General C. Everett Koop was writing informally during the height of the AIDS epidemic, and he was perfectly right to warn gay people not to have anal sex. But the fact is, anal sex itself is not the culprit. Lots of people have anal sex -- about forty percent of American adults have done it, according to the CDC -- and most never got infected with anything. It's not a fact that anal sex itself is dangerous -- it was timely advice in its day, and gay men should still be aware of the risks of having anal sex with a partner whose HIV status is uncertain, but there is no fact about anal sex here.

The other statement, from the NIH report, well, that one's just weird. Out of the whole report, they pick out one sentence. Look, HERE is the 49-page report. On page 13, in the "Background" part of the HIV section, the report says, "HIV/AIDS can be sexually transmitted by anal, penile-vaginal, and oral intercourse. The highest rate of transmission is through anal exposure." There is no citation for this statement, and it is not a conclusion of the workshop. This is just a statement made in introducing the topic of condoms and HIV/AIDS.

This might be a fact, I don't know. Since gay men seem to make up about half of new HIV diagnoses, I'm pretty sure male-to-male anal sex is an important vector of transmission for the virus. But it is common for someone not to know exactly when the virus was contracted, and what they were doing at the time. So there's no study that says how many people caught the disease through what exact behavior, and the "fact" is not really known.

If the schools are going to teach about the risks of anal sex, this would not be appropriate in the condom-usage class, but would go in the sexually-transmitted-infection section, which is not currently under consideration. This is probably the most important fact of all here -- these statements don't fit where the CRC wants them to fit. Dr. Jacobs' recent comment on CW-TV reveals that they are starting to realize this, too. She said, "You must immediately improve your infectious disease section of the curriculum. The school has not done this so the school is presenting homosexuality but they haven't updated their infectious disease prevention curriculum to match it." If this information is to be added, yes, this is how it should be done -- it does not belong in the new sections, it should be in the STD unit.

When the CRC says that the curriculum has incorrect facts, they usually mean that they want these two not-necessarily-factual statements added to the class materials.

Sometimes the CRC puts this in terms of "the health risks of homosexual behaviors," but that term is needlessly vague. For one thing, due to the equality of the number of available orifices and erogenous zones for gay and straight people, there is no such thing as a uniquely homosexual sexual behavior. There is a health risk in having sex with someone who is infected with an STD, and that includes having sex with someone you don't know very well. There is a special risk for gay men, because HIV spread through their community first in the US and Europe. But within a monogamous, faithful relationship, there's no more risk for gay people than for straight ones.

There is one other statement that the CRC argues is not factual in the curriculum, and that is the part about innateness. The Holt textbook section used in the first day's class in tenth grade says:
Sexual orientation and gender identity are deeply personal, innate, and complex parts of one's personality that define how people see themselves as individuals and in romantic relationships.

On January 9th, when the school board was preparing to vote whether to adopt the new curriculum, a representative of the Superintendent's office, which managed the development of the curriculum, asked to add the word "innate" and its definition to the eighth grade class, too, in order to make the two sections consistent. There was not much discussion, but some, and the board accepted this little change.

There really isn't any question of innateness. People are what they are, for reasons they have no control over. Whether sexual orientation is strictly genetic, or influenced by the developmental effects of hormones in the womb and after birth, it is agreed by all serious observers, including social conservatives, that sexual orientation is innate. Some try to argue that there is a distinction between sexual attraction, which is innate, and self-identification, which is a personal or social aspect of sexual identity, but most people don't recognize such a distinction, and simply self-identify as what they are.

It is impossible for science to prove that sexual orientation is innate, but it is every person's experience that they sense the attractiveness of some individuals and not of others. This attraction is not determined by the individual, but comes to them: the differential attraction is innate. It would be silly to limit the universe of facts to those that have been proven by science. For instance, the fact that Einstein taught at Princeton has never been scientifically proven, yet it is an indisputable fact. I don't need scientific proof that my boots are brown. The fact is, sexual orientation is innate, and everybody knows it.

The second thing he says they want is for the curriculum to "just stay away from the religious implications of homosexuality." This is a strange request. Partly because of sensitivity raised by the previous lawsuit, the school district was ridiculously careful not to mention anything at all about religion in these classes. There just isn't anything.

So why would they say this? In the CRC's complaint to the state, they tried to argue that "secular humanism" is a religion, that the schools are teaching religion in the classroom.

If they really wanted to try to prove this point, the CRC would first of all have to be able to prove that the classes really were examples of secular humanism. Secular, yes, of course, but the class content does not conform with the definition of humanism.

The fact remains, even if they could prove that these classes did comprise an expression of secular humanism (which would be nearly impossible), the courts have not agreed that secular humanism is a religion. You can follow the legal argument at Wikipedia, and read about the 1994 ruling where the court said "We reject this claim because neither the Supreme Court, nor this circuit, has ever held that evolutionism or secular humanism are 'religions' for Establishment Clause purposes." (Scroll down to "Legal Mentions (United States)".) In fact, the cited case, Peloza v. Capistrano School District, is quite relevant to our debate; a teacher claimed he should be exempt from teaching about evolution, since that amounted to teaching a religion. He lost.

As I understand the CRC's view here, the problem is that they feel their children should not be exposed to secular viewpoints in the public schools, when these conflict with their religious beliefs. I think you can see the problem with that. Secularism is the absence of religion, by definition. In America, it is the common currency of the exchange of ideas among people of different religions. Pork is still a food, whether your religion allows you to eat it or not, and there is a range of sexual orientations, regardless of your church's interpretation of them. Civilized people can discuss secular phenomena without reference to their religious perspective.

The school district has gone to enormous expense and trouble to take out everything with even the most remote religious implication. But they can't take out the science and medicine -- those are secular, nonreligious, and if the facts as they are understood by science conflict with somebody's religious belief then it has to be up to that person to find the workaround. The whole society is not going to accommodate one group's religious prohibition, especially when most of the population feels that that prohibition amounts to bigotry. Nothing forces any child to take these classes, in fact parents have to petition the school for permission. No one is forced to be exposed to something they can't accept.

In sum, the CRC might congratulate themselves at this point. They held the school district's feet to the fire, made them concentrate on details that might have otherwise gone unexamined. The new curricula attain a standard of scientific credibility that is extraordinary for public middle and high school classes -- every word of every class has been scrutinized and forced to pass a most rigorous inspection. The CRC might have wanted more, just as we want more, but they cannot point to any incorrect fact in the classes. Further, the CRC has forced MCPS to excise any implication, any hint of religious language from the classes. At one point, the citizens advisory committee wanted to discuss adding a sentence noting that some religions disapprove of homosexuality while some don't, and MCPS staff made it clear that sort of wording wouldn't be allowed. Even that. The CRC can pore over the materials all they want, but there is nothing anywhere that is vaguely religious in nature.

It would not be a bad idea for them to claim victory, and it would not be an embarrassment. Everyone was surprised that an uprising like theirs would gain any traction at all in a liberal stronghold like Montgomery County, but they had as many as two hundred people attend one of their meetings, in their heyday two years ago, back when there was a "mandate" and Bush's popularity was still in the fifty-percent range nationally.

I don't expect them to quit, even though it seems clear to me that the criteria spelled out by John Garza have been met. He told the interviewer at CW-TV that they plan to fight the curriculum at a hearing with the state school board, and then they plan to take it to federal court. But I think, from this other comment, that he might realize that they cannot stop these classes now. The community does not support them, and the school district has been very careful in preparing a fact-filled, religion-free curriculum that will probably be supported by the state and has no openings for an attack on Constitutional grounds.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Endgame? Yeah, right.

A young attorney who had taken over his father's practice rushed home elated one night.

"Dad, listen," he shouted, "I've finally settled that old McKinney suit."

"Settled it!" cried his astonished father. "Why, you idiot! We have been living off of that money for five years!"

April 18, 2007 3:44 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

"He told the interviewer at CW-TV that they plan to fight the curriculum at a hearing with the state school board, and then they plan to take it to federal court. But I think, from this other comment, that he might realize that they cannot stop these classes now. The community does not support them, and the school district has been very careful in preparing a fact-filled, religion-free curriculum that will probably be supported by the state and has no openings for an attack on Constitutional grounds."

One thing you're forgetting, Jim. The new curriculum, thanks to a last minute move by O'Neill, contains a statement about the innateness of homosexuality that is not empirically supportable. Furthermore, it won't be much of a stretch to show how students may interpret the curriculum as implying that certain dangerous behavior is relatively safe.

You do a good job obscuring these facts here among the local yokels but a Federal trial will have expert testimony. Don't expect the same success there.

April 23, 2007 9:53 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

There was nothing "last minute" about it. The word "innate" was already in the revised curriculum for tenth grade.

The Director of Curriculum for MCPS, Ms. Betsy Brown, recommended that the BOE add the word "innate" to the eighth grade lessons for internal consistency. Mrs. O'Neill took the recommendation made by Ms. Brown and turned it into a motion so the BOE could vote yea or nay.

Even BOE member Steve Abrams, former Montgomery County GOP Chairman ( agreed the word "innate" should be included in both grade levels. Ms. O'Neill's motion of Ms. Brown's recommendation was approved by the BOE.

All of this occurred at the January 9, 2007 BOE meeting. The video of that meeting is archived here:

April 26, 2007 7:48 AM  

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