Friday, September 4, 2009

Fox News on"Angry Parents Suing California Schools Over Mandatory Gay-Friendly Classes" : the trouble with Tango

09/03/09 Fox News / ADF Alliance Alert:

Fox News claims that a lawsuit in my hometown of Alameda has become "a test case for schools throughout the country." Although it does not directly implicate the right to marry, its closeness to home - and its bearing on a proposed initiative to repeal Prop. 8 - give me reason to monitor it.

The lawsuit, Balde v. Alameda Unified School District (Alameda County Superior Court, Case No. RG09-468037) concerns whether Alameda Unified School District (AUSD) must let parents exempt their children from a curriculum of a type that they object to on religious grounds, and that Fox News calls (or stigmatizes as) "gay-friendly." This is the Safe School Community Curriculum - Lesson 9 ("Lesson 9"). It concerns family diversity and stereotypes of gay familes. AUSD seeks to prevent repeat episodes of bullying against children of gay and lesbian parents.

Plaintiff parents contend that the curriculum qualifies as "instruction in health" under Cal. Educ. Code Sec. 51240. Under this law, parents may excuse their children from "instruction in health" if it violates their "religious training and beliefs," and if they make written request for excusal. How does Lesson 9 qualify as health instruction? The petitioners identify features of the curriculum that it allegedly shares with the Health Education Content Standards for California Public Schools. In their initial petition for a writ of manadmus against AUSD, the parents describe one of these features:

Students are then required to read, And Tango Makes Three, a book about two Chinstrap Penguins who "fall in love with the help of their keeper, Mr. Gramzay, become fathers to Tango (another male penguin)." The curcciulum states that this book is reqired reading in order to illustrate to students "the beauty of diverse familes." [par. 23]
Not surprisingly, the amended petition leaves out express reference to the offending penguins. Although the book has been controversial among social conservatives, it's not altogether transparent how "health instruction" automatically occurs when teachers and students discuss a story about gay penguins and its meaning for loving families.

In my previous post on the lawsuit, I set out AUSD's likely position. Consistent with the California Student Safety and Violence Prevention Act of 2000, and other laws, AUSD has a legal duty to protect students from discrimination based on the sexual orientation of their parents. It has adopted a curriculum to remedy discrimination rather than to fulfil the "focus" of the Health Education Content Standards. The Standards have as their focus "teaching the skills that enable students to make healthy choices and avoid high-risk behaviors." (page vii).

Lesson 9 and the Standards concern "characteristics" and "responsibilities" of families, and the need to "respect people with differences." But bullying students of gay and lesbian parents harms the students and impairs their access to quality education, contrary to state law. So AUSD will probably answer that Lesson 9 was developed to prevent recurrences of illegal discrimination it has a duty to prevent, not "to help students make healthy choices and avoid high-risk behaviors."

Fox News has been following the case with obvious enthusiasm, perhaps because charges of "gay-friendly" instruction - or rather "indoctrination" - were red meat for supporters of Prop. 8 in their campaign commercials last year. If it's not dismissed, will the lawsuit gain a wider audience? I think it might. Alameda's "angry parents," Fox News, Tango, and the lawsuit may yet converge at the point of an initiative to repeal Prop. 8.

In the meantime, those angry parents have done more than sue the AUSD. According to the Alameda Journal (with articles here and here), Rev. Dione Evans leads an effort to recall the three AUSD Board members who voted to adopt Lesson 9, even as an online petition has gained over 1,000 signatures to oppose the recall. Evans recently told a meeting of supporters that public schools "are not for socializing, and they're certainly not for indoctrination." He has also said that AUSD offers no curriculum to address racial bullying, even though he believes that race more often leads to bullying than sexual orientation. If he is right, why does he think that Lesson 9 represents "indoctrination," when a curriculum to address both types of bullying might be an overdue reform?

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