After conservatives both locally and nationally staged an all-out campaign against the Montgomery County, MD school system's revised sexuality education program and pilot program that included discussions on homosexuality, a federal judge blocked the program from being implemented in early May. Largely as a result of the controversy, the Montgomery County school board decided to cancel the entire program in late May and instead create an entirely new program.
The sexuality education program for 8th and 10th graders that caused the controversy was originally approved by the Montgomery County's Board of Education in November 2004. The program included a video in tenth-grade health classes that showed students how to put on a condom and a pilot program for selected schools to discuss homosexuality in the eighth and tenth grade Family Life Curriculum.
A group of people in the community disagreed with the changes from the beginning and formed an organization called Citizens for Responsible Curriculum. The group campaigned against the curriculum and organized a meeting for parents in March where they spoke about their opposition. Representatives from national conservative organizations such as Concerned Women for America and Family Research Council also spoke at the meeting.
Citizens for Responsible Curriculum decided to take further action and, together with the Virginia-based group Parents and Friends of Ex-Gays and Gays, brought a federal lawsuit against the school system. The Liberty Counsel, a conservative Florida-based Christian legal group loosely affiliated with Jerry Falwell, filed the lawsuit on behalf of the two groups on May 3.1 The lawsuit claimed that allowing discussions over homosexuality to take place in the schools and distributing resource materials that included information on gay-positive churches and religious groups gave preference to religions that are tolerant of homosexuality and ignored those churches that teach that homosexuality is wrong. In addition, the lawsuit claims the school board has an "irrational phobia of the ex-gay community" and the two groups asked the court to force the school district to include materials from ex-gay groups.2
The controversy gained national attention when U.S. District Judge Alexander Williams sided with these groups and issued a ten-day restraining order to prevent the school system from implementing its pilot health program in the six schools where it was scheduled to begin. The judge ordered that a second hearing be held in those ten days to determine whether to extend the restraining order. Williams explained, "the court is extremely troubled by the willingness of the defendants to venture, or perhaps more correctly, bound, into the crossroads of controversy where religion, morality, and homosexuality converge."3
During the court case, the school system's attorney defended the new program and pointed out that parents can choose to remove their children from the program by signing a form. She said that blocking the curriculum would only hurt the students who had already agreed to take part.4
Nonetheless, in late May the Montgomery County Board of Education took a surprising step and voted 7-1 to create a new sex education program, rather than continue with the controversial program. The new curriculum will be written by Montgomery County Public School educators and the board will appoint a new citizens advisory committee to provide input as well.
Both sides claimed victory in the board's decision. Supporters of the sexuality education curriculum see the board's decision as a strategic move to retain local control over the schools. Christine Grewell, who co-founded Teach the Facts, a grassroots group of parents who supported the new curriculum said, "the more I think about [the Board's resolution], the more I think it was a smart decision… It will help Montgomery County maintain control over the content."5 She has already applied to be on the new citizen's advisory committee.
Opponents of the new curriculum were also pleased with the board's decision. Michelle Turner from Citizens for a Responsible Curriculum explained, "something can be developed that is suitable for all students in Montgomery County."6 The lawsuit that the group filed is still in negotiations despite the school's recent cancellation of the program. Matthew Staver, president and general counsel for Liberty Counsel explained, "we still have to settle a few other issues to settle the case... There needs to be a general understanding of the ground rules." For instance, he explained, Citizens for a Responsible Curriculum must have representation on the citizen's committee and the curriculum should take a more "objective" approach to homosexuality.7
This controversy is an important example of the dangerous influence conservative groups have on what is being taught in public school classrooms around the nation. The Liberty Counsel extolled in their e-mail alert that this case was the "most significant curriculum decision ever rendered." It went on to say, "yesterday's decision snatched our youth out of the jaws of a radical homosexual agenda…. We are thrilled with the judge's ruling, and we thank God that our children will not become mere human experiments of a radical sex education curriculum."8 The use of conservative legal groups to advocate against comprehensive sexuality education programs and to scare local school districts into ultimately canceling their programs is a dangerous trend and an important one to monitor.
- Jon Ward, "Schools Expected to Defer on Sex-Ed," Washington Times (DC), 10 May 2005, accessed 25 May 2005.
- 365Gay.com Newscenter Staff, "Ex-Gay Group Sues School Board Over Pro-Gay Stand," 365gay.com, 3 May 2005, accessed 11 May 2005.
- 365Gay.com Newscenter Staff, "Federal Court Supports Ex-Gays and Halts Sex Ed Course," 365gay.com, 5 May 2005, accessed 11 May 2005.
- "Judge Blocks Maryland Sex-Ed Program," CNN.Com, 6 May 2005, accessed 11 May 2005.
- Elizabeth Weill-Greenberg, "Md. School Board to Rewrite Sex Ed Curriculum," Washington Blade, 27 May 2005.
- Liberty Counsel, "Liberty Counsel Alert," Email, 6 May 2005.