Wednesday, Jan. 23, 2008

Judge deliberating sex-ed dispute

School board holding budget worksessions this week

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A Circuit Court judge has set no timetable for his decision in the battle between the school system and three conservative groups over a sex-education curriculum.

The fight over what is right or wrong to teach teenagers about homosexuality, which has lasted years, played out before Judge William J. Rowan III in a Rockville courtroom last week.

The groups — Citizens for a Responsible Curriculum, Parents and Friends of Ex-Gays and Gays, and Family Leader Network — argue that it is illegal to teach students that homosexuality is innate. After a battery of curriculum changes, which included the overhaul of a condom use video, the critics say that the lesson plans still teach alternative forms of sex to students.

School system officials contend that they have done everything possible to make sure the lessons were balanced, and that the opponents want to rewrite the curriculum. In addition to the video, the lesson plans include two 45-minute sessions in eighth and 10th grade on sexual orientation.

The groups filed an appeal with the state school board in February to have the lesson plans thrown out before they could be taught. In July, the state board sided with the county board, saying that the sex-education curriculum does not violate state law.

While there may be some disagreement on how homosexuality and ‘‘transgender issues” are taught in the classrooms, the board wrote in its opinion, it would not ‘‘second guess the appropriateness of the local board’s decision governing curriculum, unless ... that decision is illegal.”

During oral arguments last week, an attorney for the groups told Rowan that they were never given the chance to air their grievances to the state school board. They want him to either deem the curriculum illegal or throw the case back to the state board.

‘‘What’s being challenged is the presentation of the word homosexuality,” said Brandon M. Bolling, an attorney with the Thomas More Law Center in Anne Arbor, Mich., on behalf of the groups. Under state law, the school system ‘‘has to teach something that is factually accurate,” he said.

The sex-education curriculum is legal under state law and should not be adjusted for the opponents’ benefit, said Judith S. Bresler, an attorney for the school system.

‘‘The lessons were not created in a vacuum,” she said. ‘‘There’s no obligation to rewrite the curriculum to meet their obligations. The state board of education said this curriculum is within the legitimate sphere of the authority of the county board of education.”

The county school board adopted final revisions to the sex-ed curriculum in June, including a last-minute addition about what teachers can say if a student asks about homosexuality.

Students may opt-in to take the lessons. Those who don’t opt in take alternative classes. While the opponents do not dispute the alternatives, they do not present ‘‘an equal educational opportunity” for students, Bolling argued.

The county school board adopted final revisions to the sex-education curriculum in June, which included a last-minute addition about what teachers can say if a student asks about homosexuality. The statement was added after teachers who taught the pilot last spring expressed concern that they could not answer some students’ questions about the topic.

In Montgomery, if a student asks ‘‘Is homosexuality an illness?” the teacher can only say ‘‘No. The American Psychiatric Association does not include homosexuality in its listing of psychiatric or mental disorders.”

Not all religious groups oppose the lessons.

In November, 63 members of the Rockville United Church signed a petition and sent a letter to the county school board to support the sex-education curriculum.

‘‘We don’t believe that homosexuality is a sin per se,” Paul H. Verduin, chairman of the church’s Church in Society Committee, told The Gazette in November. ‘‘We encourage people to follow their inner personality, their inner makeup. We don’t think that homosexuals should be made by our society to think something is wrong with them.”

The sex-education curriculum has long been contentious.

Revisions passed in 2004 included a discussion of homosexuality and a video on condom use. CRC and PFOX sued to stop the curriculum in U.S. District Court in Greenbelt, saying it was unconstitutional.

In May 2005, a federal judge ruled that teacher resource materials were objectionable because they unfairly singled out specific religious denominations for their condemnation of homosexuality.

Budget worksessions

The school board will hold worksessions at 7:30 p.m. tonight and Thursday on Superintendent Jerry D. Weast’s recommended $2.11 billion fiscal 2009 operating budget.

Both worksessions will be held in the board room at Carver Educational Services Center, 850 Hungerford Drive in Rockville. It will broadcast live on channel 34 and rebroadcast at 1 p.m. on Saturday and Sunday. Call 301-279-3617 for more information.