By Daniel de Vise
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, February 2, 2008
A state court judge has ruled in favor of new sex education lessons in Montgomery County middle and high schools, dismissing a legal challenge from religious conservatives who said the county school board violated state law by teaching that sexual orientation is innate.
Circuit Court Judge William Rowan III affirmed a decision last year by the Maryland State Board of Education, which determined that it had no right to "second-guess the appropriateness" of the curriculum adopted by the Montgomery community.
The ruling, dated Thursday, allows Maryland's largest school system to continue teaching the lessons, which the school board adopted last summer. Some lessons address sexual orientation as a classroom topic in Montgomery schools for the first time, and one introduces a video for 10th-graders on the correct use of a condom.
"We hope that we can put this litigation behind us now once and for all and move forward with our primary mission: educating our children," Superintendent Jerry D. Weast said in a statement.
John Garza, president of Citizens for a Responsible Curriculum, which has led opposition to the curriculum, said he was not sure whether to appeal further. "We have 30 days to think about it," he said in an e-mail.
The lessons place the county at the leading edge of a trend toward more candor in discussing homosexuality in the nation's public schools, although some educators have embraced an abstinence-only approach.
An opposition movement has fought the revisions since they were proposed six years ago, saying that the lessons present a one-sided, wholly affirming view of homosexuality that abridges the religious rights of parents who believe it is a sin.
In court last month, lawyers for the opposition narrowed their focus to two points. They said that the new lessons describe homosexuality as innate, in violation of a state law that says school curricula must be factual. And they challenged a reference to anal intercourse, which they said violated a prohibition against teaching "erotic techniques" in the classroom.
School officials said the opponents were trying to edit the curriculum word for word and usurp the role of the local school board.
The judge agreed, stressing in a 10-page opinion the role of "contemporary community standards" in shaping decisions about what is appropriate for a curriculum. He said the school board's use of the term "innate" was defensible, noting that it was couched in a much broader definition of factors that determine sexual orientation.
The school system began working on the lessons at the urging of a citizens advisory group; under the old rules, teachers could speak about homosexuality only in response to a student's inquiry.
A first attempt to revise the lessons ended in 2005, when a federal judge faulted materials that criticized religious fundamentalism. Weast withdrew the lessons before they were taught.
Rewritten lessons, more tightly scripted and stripped of religious content, were introduced last year. They were taught in middle schools in the fall and in high schools last month.
Parents had to sign a form for their children to attend the sessions. School officials said that more than 95 percent of students opted to attend. Opponents said the rate of participation might have been partly due to peer pressure.