An April 6 Metro article about sex education programs offered by churches and synagogues gave an incorrect name for the Washington-based Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice. (Published 4/8/03)
On Faith appears on the first Sunday of each month.
When the young teenagers in Bethesda's Cedar Lane Unitarian Universalist Church tell their friends what they're learning in Sunday school, they get some interesting reactions. Emily Fucello, 13, said one of her girlfriends "got jealous." Lily Duffy, 13, said "a lot of people ask if they can come to the class." And more than once, Amelia McLaughlin has been asked, "You learned that at church?"
The object of their friends' envy is "Our Whole Lives," a faith-based sex education program that delivers comprehensive information about every aspect of human sexuality while stressing responsible decision-making.
"We talk about lots of things that will help us in the future, like contraception. Today we put a condom on a banana," said Kerry Bowen, 14. "And we talk about values."
A growing number of churches and synagogues are offering sex education as part of their religious instruction curriculum, a movement that began in the sexually liberal 1960s and expanded in the 1980s, when faith communities confronted the twin crises of AIDS and soaring teenage pregnancy rates.
In recent years, many secular groups that promote sex education for young people have increased their collaboration with faith groups, recognizing the important role of religious values in shaping teenage behavior.
"If we're going to get teens to change their sexual behavior, information is not enough," said Bill Albert, communications director for the National Campaign to Prevent Teen Pregnancy. "We have to focus laser-like on motivation, and I think that is where religious beliefs, personal feelings about right and wrong, and one's own morals and values play a critical role."
Just last week, the National Institutes of Health issued the findings of a study of almost 5,000 teenagers ages 15 to 18. It concluded that "teens -- particularly girls -- with strong religious views are less likely to have sex . . . largely because their religious views lead them to view the consequences of having sex negatively."
Abstinence from sexual intercourse during teenage years or until marriage is a staple of almost all faith-based sex education courses. But the programs vary greatly in how much emphasis is placed on abstinence and what other information is provided. They range from "Our Whole Lives," which explores subjects including homosexuality, sexually transmitted diseases, masturbation and oral sex, to the Southern Baptist Convention's "True Love Waits," which simply asks young people to promise to abstain from sexual activity until marriage.
Religious institutions "can educate young people about sexuality in a way that no one else does" because unlike public schools, they can talk about moral values, said Debra W. Haffner, author of parenting books and a graduate of New York's Union Theological Seminary.
Haffner is director of the two-year-old Religious Institute on Sexual Morality, Justice and Healing, an interfaith movement of more than 2,200 clergy, theologians and other religious leaders who have called for "lifelong, age appropriate sexuality education" that covers both abstinence and contraception.
Despite the growing attention to sex education by faith institutions, Haffner said, many U.S. teenagers -- 60 percent of whom spend an hour or more a week at a congregation -- still complain that they do not get enough help on sexuality issues from religious educators.
The Rev. Carlton W. Veazey, executive director of the Washington-based Religious Coalition for Reproductive Rights, has been urging African American churches for years to provide more sex education. But in many of them, he said, "it's still a taboo subject. Many pastors don't want to deal with it because they have not been trained in how to broach the subject. Even some may think of it as being dirty."
That's why the coalition's Black Church Initiative developed "Keeping It Real!" a curriculum for black youths ages 13 to 17. Taught in seven sessions with parents present, it is designed to foster dialogue about sexuality. Each session studies a biblical verse, but time is also spent discussing questions such as, "Have you ever had a conversation about sex with your parents? What do you remember thinking and feeling about those conversations?"
The teenagers also discuss "The 411 on Sex and Slang," a glossary of technical and street-talk terms. And they debate hypothetical situations that are meant to teach good decision-making.
The Rev. Paul Brown Sr., pastor of Miles Memorial CME Church in Northwest Washington, said his church has used "Keeping It Real!" for three years.
While the program works toward abstinence, Brown said, "it doesn't begin with an abstinence-only approach" because that is unrealistic when "you see these young kids today watching music videos, MTV, where young people are scantily clad and the message constantly is sex, sex, sex. We can't start with the position of denying that sex is there."
A different approach governs "True Love Waits," the 10-year-old movement of the Southern Baptist Convention, the nation's second-largest denomination. It asks young people to promise to forsake sexual activity until marriage, a pledge they often make at ceremonies in individual churches or at large public rallies.
The campaign is now embraced by churches, schools and community organizations in 100 countries. But those using the program differ in how much sexual information they give to the teenagers preparing to make their promise.
Covenant Baptist Church in Southwest Washington decided that it needed "True Love Waits" and "Keeping It Real!," said its assistant pastor, the Rev. Christine Y. Wiley. "For our middle-schoolers, 'Keeping It Real!' was so heavy because it was starting to introduce them to things like female condoms, so we started emphasizing 'True Love Waits' for them," she said.
In the Roman Catholic Church, the country's largest denomination, sexuality education is offered as part of religious instruction and within the context of church teachings that stress abstinence until marriage, according to the Rev. Charles Parry, pastor of Sacred Heart parish in Bowie, who helped draw up guidelines for sex education in the Washington Archdiocese.
Archdiocesan high schools are not given specific curriculum requirements, and principals decide what should be discussed, Parry said. High schools may address contraception only within the context of church teachings, which oppose all artificial forms of birth control.
Some Catholic high schools stage "Chastity Days," featuring outside speakers, or programs encouraging abstinence. St. Vincent Pallotti High School in Laurel, for example, offers "The Game Plan," a program that asks youths to consider how their life goals could be upended by bad decisions made today, according to campus minister Nancy Vawter.
"Abstinence is still the best choice," she said. "For Catholics kids, we believe it's part of their vocation."
Religious schools at almost all Jewish Reform synagogues are now providing some type of sexuality education, according to Rabbi Jonathan Stein, who chairs the Ad Hoc Committee on Human Sexuality of the New York-based Central Conference of American Rabbis.
"Whether they're actually doing sex ed in terms of anatomy and reproduction, that's not as common. But almost all have instruction in decisions about marriage, premarital sex and the Jewish traditional view of homosexuality," Stein said. The program usually is taught by the rabbi.
Stein was a pioneer in this effort when he borrowed an early version of "Our Whole Lives," recast it with a Jewish perspective and began teaching it to youths at weekend retreats.
Locally, Washington Hebrew Congregation, a Reform synagogue in Northwest, has done the same thing. Its annual weekend retreat for ninth-graders, led by married couples, has "been one of most powerful experiences our children have," said senior rabbi Bruce Lustig.
At Cedar Lane Unitarian Universalist, sex education is the major component of eighth-grade religious instruction, and this year 34 boys and girls at the church are taking "Our Whole Lives." Commonly known as OWL, the 13-volume curriculum for kindergarten through grade 12 was developed about 15 years ago by churches from two denominations: Unitarian Universalist and United Church of Christ.
Parents, who must attend two orientation sessions, say they appreciate OWL, even if it takes some getting used to. "It's a pretty bold program," Peggy Jackson said. "When my son went through it five years ago, I was more nervous. Now my daughter is in it, and I'm more relaxed. I'm really grateful that the kids have somewhere safe to go to ask very delicate questions and get straightforward answers."
Karen Kinney of Alexandria said that a book titled "It's Perfectly Normal," which her 10-year-old daughter Jessica received at an OWL course at Church of the Pilgrims, a Presbyterian congregation in Northwest Washington, has "started some good conversations between she and I."
What came across in a discussion with five teenagers at Cedar Lane was that they were grateful for the information they were getting and felt it had put them at an advantage over their peers. "The teachers talk in school about sex, and say, 'Don't have sex, you'll get hepatitis C,' " said Amelia McLaughlin, 14, who attends Green Acres, a private school in Rockville. "But here we actually learned what happens when you get an STD."
Lily Duffy, 13, said that at North Bethesda Middle School, "we don't talk that much about values, just facts. And here, they elaborate on the emotional part."
All the teenagers agreed that the program definitely reaches one of its goals: stimulating dialogue with their parents about sex.
"They bring it up," Duffy said. "They say, 'How was class?' "