County Tried To Close Door On Openness

By Marc Fisher
Sunday, May 8, 2005

Ever since the Montgomery County public schools decided that the time had come to teach children about homosexuality, thousands of hours have been spent working out exactly what words, thoughts and facts could pass from teachers to students. A galactic vastness could not contain the sensitivities, fears, accusations and acrimony that then blossomed.

But you need read only one sentence in the new curriculum to understand how far off Montgomery has gone: The curriculum lists precisely what teachers may say about homosexuality, then adds, "No additional information, interpretation or examples are to be provided by the teacher."

Ah, so that's how to stretch minds and instill a love of discovery.

It has fallen to U.S. District Judge Alex Williams, the former state's attorney in Prince George's County, to put the curriculum out of its misery. He has cut through both the nannyism of the school system and the babbittry of parents and anti-gay groups who sued.

Until now, Montgomery has banned any mention of homosexuality in health class. Correctly sensing that the ostrich approach is not exactly optimal, the system set out to broach the topic with eighth- and 10th-graders.

The county invited parents and activists to help find a path. The result, a pilot program that was about to be launched in six schools until Williams blocked it Thursday, was a series of Myth/Fact statements.

Some are reasonable: "Myth: If you are 'straight,' you can become a homosexual. Fact: Most experts in the field have concluded that sexual orientation is not a choice."

Others are propagandistic. True or False, the teacher's guide asks: "Loving people of the same sex is immoral (sinful)." The state-sanctioned answer: "Many religious denominations do not believe this. . . . What is universally understood is that intolerance and hatred is wrong."

Now Montgomery County decrees that any religion that considers homosexuality sinful is intolerant and hateful, even if most such faiths teach that hatred is unacceptable and sinners are to be loved.

The county goes further: "Fortunately, many within organized religions are beginning to address the homophobia of the church," and then the county lists faiths worthy of praise (Unitarians, Quakers, Reform Jews).

Williams didn't have to weigh this baby for more than a millisecond. He quotes Supreme Court Justice Felix Frankfurter: "The public school must keep scrupulously free from entanglement in the strife of sects."

As Williams protects free speech rights, he also stomps on parents who argued that the new teaching would entice kids into homosexual behavior. That, the judge says, "would require more than a few logical leaps."

The curriculum, a nasty piece of work, singles out Baptists, in Williams's words, as "unenlightened and Biblically misguided." It rips all fundamentalists, comparing Baptist opposition to racial integration half a century ago with current beliefs about gays and sin.

Williams says he "does not understand why . . . in attempting to achieve the goals of advocating tolerance and providing health-related information, [the school system] must offer up their opinion on such controversial topics as whether homosexuality is a sin . . . and whether churches that condemn homosexuality are on theologically sound ground."

Go ahead and teach about homosexuality, but let the teachers soar: Teach the history, sociology, science and politics of the issue. Let kids read Scripture, court decisions, scientific studies and floor debates.

To teach about slavery, good teachers dive into both the suffering of slaves and the moral universe of slaveholders. Any fool can see that slaves led miserable lives. The real student wants to figure out how the same founding fathers who risked their lives for political principle also believed they had a right to treat people as animals.

To teach about homosexuality, Montgomery must kill this rigid curriculum, stop creating new taboos (adolescents can sniff adult anxiety from miles away) and illuminate all sides.

Only those who lack confidence in the power of truth resort to forcing one viewpoint on children. Only those who mistrust their fellow man feel compelled to exclude opposing beliefs.

On an open battlefield of ideas, the results can amaze. Need proof? Read the Constitution. Judge Williams did.

© 2005 The Washington Post Company