The e-mail that landed in mailboxes throughout Montgomery County was provocative:
"DID YOU KNOW . . . . '' it read in big, bold type. "Three organizations supporting homosexuality as natural and mainstream were appointed to the NEW Citizens Advisory Committee?" and "Homosexual advocacy groups are targeting Montgomery County children and families?"
On one hand, the missive, sent out last month by members of Citizens for a Responsible Curriculum (CRC), was just the latest in a series of skirmishes between the parents group and Montgomery County public schools. But the note -- advertising a CRC workshop -- also shows how educators' efforts to talk more frankly about homosexuality are raising alarm among those who believe such topics are taboo in U.S. classrooms.
In the 1980s and 1990s, the threat of AIDS and concerns about sexually transmitted diseases forced educators to grapple with the controversial question of whether to distribute condoms to teens. Today, it is homosexuality fueling the debate, as more school systems show a willingness to go beyond a cursory discussion of what it means to be gay, to allow students to form gay/straight alliance clubs and to make accommodations that allow same-sex couples to attend school dances. The battle, both sides say, is likely to intensify.
"It is the new flashpoint,'' said Jeffrey Moran, chairman of the history department at the University of Kansas and author of a book that chronicles the history of sex education in the United States. "Homosexuality has played a big role in the resurgence of attacks on sex education.''
For groups that endorse self-described traditional values when it comes to education, such as Liberty Counsel, which has worked closely with CRC in its fight against the Montgomery public school system, and the Alliance Defense Fund, the mention of homosexuality invokes charges that advocacy groups are using the schoolhouse to push a "homosexual agenda" on children.
"It's an adult-driven agenda to indoctrinate students,'' said Mike Johnson, senior legal counsel for the Alliance Defense Fund. "The schools have become kind of a ground zero on the homosexual agenda."
Added Michelle Turner, president of CRC: "Why does the school system believe it's up to them to tell kids [homosexuality] is natural or the same as heterosexuality? Why are schools not promoting religious tolerance?"
Groups such as the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network (GLSEN), which founded a national Day of Silence -- in which students remain silent for an entire day to demonstrate what they call the silencing of gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people -- say their goal is not "indoctrination" but rather promoting a safe environment in which all students feel welcome and accepted.
"We do believe that in this country our schools should be places where all people are valued and respected,'' said Eliza Byard, deputy executive director for GLSEN. "To the extent that folks say we have an agenda, there it is."
Observers said the clashes reflect the country's ongoing struggle with homosexuality, from gay marriage to the Vatican offering directives on the role of gays in the church. It should come as no surprise to anyone that the struggle would spill over into the classroom.
"Public schools have historically been a real battleground, because they are seen as a vehicle for teaching values to a new generation,'' said Janice Irvine, a professor of sociology at the University of Massachusetts.
The Charles County school board took the unusual step last month of saying that it would not support a curriculum that teaches students about homosexuality or condom use -- even though there are no plans to revise the curriculum.
National surveys show broad support for sex education -- and also for teaching about homosexuality -- as long as it is done in an unbiased manner. A 2004 survey by National Public Radio, the Kaiser Family Foundation and Harvard's Kennedy School of Government found that one in four of those surveyed thought it was "inappropriate" to teach about homosexuality. But the survey also found that 52 percent of the respondents said they were comfortable with teachers talking about homosexuality in a neutral way. Educators should teach "only what homosexuality is, without discussing whether it is wrong or acceptable," the survey said.
It was Montgomery County's decision to allow teachers to initiate discussions about homosexuality beginning at the eighth grade that drew fire from some parents, who felt that doing so was tacitly endorsing a lifestyle to which they were opposed. Before the change, teachers could discuss homosexuality only if asked about it by a student.
Ultimately, the school system threw out those plans after CRC and the group Parents and Friends of Ex-Gays and Gays sued the school system. Educators are in the process of writing a new program. But school officials said the new curriculum likely will still include discussions about homosexuality. It will be reviewed by a citizen advisory committee and is expected to be completed in the spring.
Groups such as the Alliance Defense Fund have tried to offer programs that highlight their viewpoints. Three years ago, the Arizona-based group unveiled the national Day of Truth to communicate to students "in a loving and peaceful manner that homosexuality is dangerous and wrong,'' Johnson said.
Jim Kennedy, a Montgomery County parent and member of Teachthefacts.org -- a group that supports comprehensive sex education in the county's public schools, including discussions regarding homosexuality -- said it's important for kids to understand what homosexuality is, in part because they may be struggling with issues of sexual identity.
"That kid deserves to know what's happening to them,'' Kennedy said.
But for Turner, the CRC president, there is a larger issue at hand.
"I think the question begs: What are our public schools becoming?'' she asked. "Are they going to be advocates of every politically correct topic that comes along?"