One by one, the parents of Catholic school students rose from their folding chairs, talked for five minutes and sat down again, often to the applause of the 30 other people in the basement of St. Jane de Chantal Church in Bethesda.
Some were close to tears and spoke quietly, while others brandished sheaves of notes and railed at the 14 silent members of the board of education of the Washington Archdiocese.
Sex education, and the school board's new policy for teaching it in the archdiocese's 111 elementary and high schools, brought the parents together on a bitterly cold night last week, fueling an emotional two-hour hearing reminiscent of the turbulent debates over sex education that divided Washington-area Catholics in the early 1970s.
"I was part of that furor then, and I'll be part of this one now," said Helen Norris of Rockville, a teacher at St. Peter's Catholic School in Olney. "No one in my class," she said, waving a pamphlet available to students in the school's sex education program, "will fail to know what goes on in their parents' bedroom after reading this. Nine- and 10-year-olds should not be exposed to this stuff."
The furor over sex education is not unique to Washington's archdiocese, which includes the District and Calvert, Charles, Montgomery, Prince George's and St. Mary's counties in Maryland. Last summer, the Montgomery County Board of Education voted against teaching contraception to eighth graders in county schools after religious and conservative groups attacked the idea. Montgomery high school students still receive such instruction, however.
But unlike their public school counterparts, Catholic educators and parents face an especially ticklish problem: how to reconcile sex education with the church's traditional teachings on chastity, the family and divorce.
"There is no best program for all of our students," said Leonard DeFiore, the superintendent of the 37,000-student Catholic system. "But in the sense that we have taught such principles as chastity and modesty, the Catholic Church has always been involved with sex education.
"It's an attempt to help the parents. The silent majority of them want this in the schools. They want that help."
Although the archdiocese tested some sex education programs three years ago in five schools, it was not until June that Washington Archbishop James A. Hickey finally approved the brief policy statement on sex education. The school board is holding a series of public hearings on the policy statement before it drafts final regulations on the issue.
The statement, a 350-word list of general principles, says, among other things, that the archdiocese should "have an integrated curriculum for students in kindergarten though Grade 12 as appropriate for age and maturity."
The school board also "affirms the value and necessity of a program of instruction in human sexuality carefully planned and presented to the students in Catholic schools," says the statement, the first of its kind in the Washington Archdiocese.
Sex education is taught in 14 parishes to more than 700 students, said Kathleen Enzler, head of the archdiocese's Family Life program on sexuality.
The typical sexuality class, usually taught at the eighth-grade level but held in a few religious education classes for students in public high schools, runs for 15 sessions and features color videotapes on such topics as marriage, birth, the sexual characteristics of the human body, self-esteem, sexual fears and fantasies, homosexuality, masturbation and premarital sex.
Parents are asked to view the tapes before a school shows them to pupils, and they can exclude their child from the classes, Enzler said. Students customarily view the programs in coeducational groups--a practice that infuriates the sex education opponents.
"The children are entitled to know about these things and to hear what the church teaches about them," said Enzler, 68, and the mother of 13 children. "We're not trying to take anything away from parents. In fact, the whole point is to promote communication between children and their parents."
But some parents complain that the classes infringe on their right to instruct their children in such delicate issues. They also say the sessions do not place enough emphasis on religious doctrine and run the risk of instilling the wrong values in young people.
Helen Norris, who has taught several grades in her 26-year career, said one of her two daughters is keeping a child out of Catholic schools "because of this sex ed and because of the kind of doctrine that's being taught.
"These classes give sex a status that it shouldn't have," said Norris. "Young people think that if the school says it's okay, it must be okay."
"Our children aren't getting a real solid foundation in Catholic doctrine," said Catherine O'Connor of Rockville. She said the sex education program "is purely Satanism. It's rottenness."
James O. Emerson of Bethesda, whose 11 children attend Catholic schools and who was a member of the archdiocese school board that rejected sex education nearly 10 years ago, said the program "goes against the grain of anyone who is chaste. It's a tragedy."
Top educators in the archdiocese take the opposite view, praising Enzler's program for keeping pace with changing social values and for carefully training the teachers who run the classes.
"Kids are going to get educated in this area with or without us," DeFiore said. "The question is: Does the Catholic Church have anything to add?"
Said Enzler: "I understand the concerns of parents who don't want sex education in the schools, but I think it's the mind-set that anything about sex is bad for their children.
"And I wonder whether these same parents will teach their kids anything" about sexuality.