You have probably seen the television advertisement by now. It warns that if Maine’s recently passed law that allows same-sex marriage is upheld by voters in November, schools could be mandated to teach students about it, according to Stand for Marriage Maine, the group that paid for the ad titled, “Everything to Do With Schools.”
Numerous educators interviewed this week, however, agreed that there is nothing in state guidelines or local curricula that addresses teaching about marriage, let alone same-sex marriage, and the outcome of Question 1 would not change that.
Yes on 1 ad No on 1 ad
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“It’s troublesome that such blatant misinformation about how this would affect education is being portrayed,” said David Connerty-Marin, spokesman for the Maine Department of Education. “The ad is simply incorrect.”
The narrator of the 30-second spot that has flooded local airwaves recently is Charla Bansley. She’s identified as an Ellsworth schoolteacher, although she does not teach in a public school and is better known as the Maine state director of Concerned Women for America, a conservative advocacy group.
Bansley explains to viewers that same-sex marriage already is being taught in Massachusetts, the first state to allow gay couples to marry. She then cuts to a clip featuring Joseph and Robin Wirthlin, a Bay State couple who filed a lawsuit after they say their second-grade son was read a book in school that condoned gay marriage.
Attempts to reach Bansley this week for comment were unsuccessful.
Scott Fish, a spokesman for Stand for Marriage Maine, stood by the ad’s message.
“The bottom line is, we see the pending law as a bad bill,” he said. “Our contention is that if the legal definition of marriage is changed, there will be consequences.”
Representatives of Protect Maine Equality have denounced the ad as a scare tactic.
“It’s really just a distraction; it’s fear being passed on,” said Sen. Justin Alfond, D-Portland, a member of the Legislature’s education committee and a participant in a conference call early this week condemning the Stand for Marriage Maine ad. “It’s really too bad because we have a tremendous challenge ahead of us already in our education system.”
The Legislature passed the same-sex marriage measure last spring, but a citizens’ initiative to overturn the law succeeded in getting enough signatures to put the repeal question on the Nov. 3 ballot and to suspend the law before it could take effect on Sept. 12. Since the law passed and the repeal effort began, the emotional debate on the issue has centered on religion, civil rights and now education. The focus on education employed by Stand for Marriage Maine has a history of success. A nearly identical advertisement to “Everything to Do With Schools” was used in California, where voters overturned a same-sex marriage law last year.
In Maine’s version of the ad, Bansley says a yes vote on Question 1 would prevent homosexual marriage from being taught in Maine schools.
But is that true? And what is actually being taught now?
State guidelines broad
Public school curricula in Maine are guided by the Department of Education’s Maine Learning Results, which can be found online at: http://www.state.me.us/education/lres/index.html. Connerty-Marin summed up state guidelines this way: There are things schools are required to teach and there are things schools cannot teach, but everything in between is fair game and is decided at the local level.
For instance, districts must teach about health but how they teach it varies from place to place. “Even in social studies, it doesn’t say ‘teach about the Ming Dynasty,’” Connerty-Marin said. “It says, ‘teach about international history and world cultures.’ It’s up to local districts to decide how to do that.”
Betsy Webb, superintendent of schools for Bangor, said the department’s health curriculum is in line with the Maine Learning Results. She said marriage of any kind is not taught and the only approved discussion of homosexuality comes in the anti-discrimination portion of the curriculum, which begins in middle school.
Rick Lyons, superintendent for SAD 22 in Hampden, Newburgh and Winterport, also said marriage is not part of the health curriculum there. He did say that the district has a policy on potentially controversial issues where parents are informed ahead of time and can decide whether to allow their children to opt out of a specific discussion. That rarely happens.
“I would like to believe that our curriculum is objective and presented in a way that evokes conversation,” he said.
A local junior high school teacher who did not want to be identified said he has been teaching health to eighth-graders for the last seven years and has never discussed same-sex marriage in class. He said homosexuality isn’t discussed either. “It’s explained very early on that lifestyles are personal,” he said.
The health teacher talks about anatomy and reproduction and risks associated with sexual activity, such as pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases. He doesn’t use a traditional textbook but rather pulls from a number of different areas for educational materials. Asked whether students ever bring more controversial topics up, the teacher said he couldn’t remember a time when that has happened. “I set the guidelines right at the beginning,” he said. “Having done this long enough, I can usually redirect students before it gets to an uncomfortable place.”
The discussion in private schools, particularly those with religious affiliations, is different. The Rev. Jerry Mick, pastor of Bangor Baptist Church, which oversees Bangor Christian Schools, said educators there actually do teach same-sex marriage and homosexuality, but only to stress that it’s wrong.
“We teach abstinence and that sex comes after marriage not before. We teach moral values. We believe homosexuality is a perverse lifestyle,” Mick said.
“Our curriculum, even in science and math, is Christ-centered.”
Public schools cannot teach religion, though. As such, Sandy Lovell with Family Planning Association of Maine, a group that works with educators to develop curricula, said sex education is and should be taught in terms of safety and respect and consequences. Gay versus straight is not on the agenda.
“I can’t understand the logic of those who think [students] are in danger if Question 1 passes,” she said.
The example of the second-grader featured in the Stand for Marriage Maine advertisement happened in Massachusetts, but Fish pointed to a video that was shown recently to fifth-graders in Portland public schools that was part of an optional family living course. The video portrays a variety of family types, including one girl who introduces her two dads as a gay couple but doesn’t actually talk about marriage.
Fish used it as an example that homosexuality can be and sometimes is discussed, so why would same-sex marriage be far behind?
Jesse Connolly, campaign manager for No On 1, addressed the video.
“We did some research on it actually. It has been shown for five years. It has been vetted at the local level,” he said. “There is a distinct difference between [discussing] the diversity of families and talking about marriage.”
But Fish said making same-sex marriage legal just opens the door to talk about the issue freely.
Educators don’t think that will happen, but even if it does, it would be done at the local level.
“There were 10 bills introduced this year to make changes to the Maine Learning Results for a number of different topics and not one of them passed,” said Alfond. “There are already too many things on teachers’ plates.”
Public school teachers all seem to say the same thing. “There is not a gay curriculum” said Sherri Gould of Corinna, Maine’s 2005 Teacher of the Year. “For anyone to think this is going to create random and rampant sex education changes is really a falsehood.”
If you have questions about what your children are being taught at school, contact your local school department. For examples of sex education lesson plans at various grade levels visit sexedlibrary.org.