Faith and Education

Posted Oct. 01, 2009, at 7:03 p.m.

The sanctity of religious faith and the imperatives of public education are colliding in the debate over the November vote on a repeal of Maine’s same-sex marriage law.

In the TV ad war between repeal proponents and opponents, a case from Massachusetts has been cited. Repeal proponents say the case shows what will happen in Maine if the law remains — parents forced to submit their young children to teachers who explain and endorse same-sex marriage.

The case — Parker v. Hurley — is far more complex than the 30-second ad suggests. Repeal proponents are inaccurate in asserting that schools would be forced to teach homosexuality. But the court ruling does suggest that parents have to submit their children to some values when they send them to public schools.

Two families — including Robin and Joseph Wirthlin, who are featured in the TV ad — sued the Lexington, Mass., school system over books depicting gays. The Wirthlins joined the suit when their son’s second-grade teacher read him the book “King and King,” which describes two princes falling in love. The parents argued in U.S. District Court they were denied due process rights to teach morals to their children, and that the children’s exposure to pro-homosexuality messages violated both the children’s and the parents’ rights to free exercise of religion.

The court sided with the school, citing “the state’s interest in preventing discrimination, specifically discrimination targeted at students in school.”

When the parents appealed, the First Circuit Court also sided with the school, but for different reasons. It found that by choosing to place their children in public school, and since their religious beliefs were not “fundamentally incompatible” with the school, they were not denied constitutional rights.

Regarding the parents’ claim that the school was indoctrinating their children, the court found that exposing them “on occasion to a concept offensive to their religious beliefs did not inhibit them from instructing their children differently.” The students were not required to “affirm any ideas, such as gay marriage, that were anathema to their religious convictions.”

In fact, such exposure can lead to what parents call a “teachable moment.” If the “King and King” story clashes with a family’s faith beliefs, the parents can use it to explain the diversity of thinking in the world, while reaffirming their beliefs.

The court also noted that the parents had notice of the school’s intent “to promote tolerance of same-sex marriage.” This last point is important, and one which repeal proponents are correct to raise. Parents must be free to exclude their children from some discussions, when it is practical to do so.

The claim that children will somehow have their values twisted by learning about same-sex relationships is absurd, just as absurd as claiming that learning about Hitler will make them Nazis. Parental rights must be respected, but in doing so, the intelligence and autonomy of children should not be underestimated.

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