Fall 2005, Vol. 8, No. 2

Table of Contents
Fall 2005

Quick Links:
Articles in this issue

From the Editor:
Was New Orleans Asking For It?

The God Squadron

Culture War, Italian Style

Establishment In the Balance

Covering Homosexuality in the Schools

Presbyterians Divest the Jews

Cruisin' For a Scientological Bruisin'


Covering Homosexuality in the Schools
by Marc Stern

Today's debates over homosexuality raise fundamental questions about human nature, the organization of society, the permissable sources of moral authority, and the rights of individuals and communities. All these questions have inevitably found their way into the nation's public schools.

Some of the resulting controversies concern the substance of what school personnel say about homosexuality in the classroom or in advising students. Others have to do with the actual treatment of gay and lesbian students and teachers. And then there are those that have little relevance to the actual operation of the schools, but which make use of them as a proxy arena for larger social struggles. Perhaps not surprisingly, these symbolic issues tend to attract a disproportionate share of media attention.

The results are not necessarily good for the public’s opinion of public education. A poll released at the end of August by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life reported that only 17 percent of the public gave public schools favorable marks for handling homosexuality, with white evangelicals, blacks, and Hispanics being particularly critical.

For this article, I reviewed newspaper coverage of gay rights disputes in the public schools over the past year. The most heavily covered stories were the annual Day of Silence/Day of Truth (promoted, respectively, by advocates and opponents of gay rights) and a dispute over sex education in Montgomery County, Maryland. The first generated articles across the country; the second, largely local coverage in the D.C. papers, and especially the Washington Times, whose reporting would have done the old Hearst papers proud.

The Day of Silence/Day of Truth events held in schools across the nation in mid-April every year are exercises in symbolism. Whatever other functions they serve, getting media attention is clearly a major goal.

Begun several years ago in high schools and colleges, the Day of Silence is currently sponsored by an organization called Gays, Lesbians, and Straights in Education (GLSEN). GLSEN claims that 400,000-450,000 students at some 400 participating schools participate annually, although there is no independent verification of these claims (a fact made clear in the coverage).

Participating students agree not to talk for a full day—including not responding to teachers’ questions—in order to symbolize the silence imposed on gay students by their harassing peers. In some schools, students mark the day by wearing black clothing.

Not wishing to yield the field to proponents of gay rights, the Alliance Defense Fund (ADF), a conservative legal group, this year started a countervailing Day of Truth, marked by students wearing T-shirts and handing out information cards. As reported by Trevor Maxwell in the Portland (Me.) Press Herald April 14, the cards in that area read, “I believe in equal treatment for all, and not special rights for a few. I believe in loving my neighbor, but part of that love means not condoning detrimental personal and social behavior.” Estimates (provided by and attributed to ADF) were in the range of 40,000 participants, a tenth of the number claimed by GLSEN for its Day of Silence.

With the exception of an excellent follow-up article by Letitia Stein in the April 29 St. Petersburg Times, which put the local Day of Silence in national perspective, the stories tended to focus exclusively on the local event. They allowed students and their adult supporters to express themselves, and balanced their statements with interviews from Day of Truth participants. Overall, I found the coverage straightforward and unbiased.

Reading these articles in one sitting, though, suggests themes that could have been developed but for the most part were not—probably because a single reporter covering a national story from a local perspective would not see them.

For example, Kevin Pentn of the Allentown, Pennsylvania Morning Call reported on April 13 that the local school district had overruled its attorney, who would have banned the Day of Silence as disruptive. The attorney, said the superintendent, was “making a mountain out of a molehill.” (Lawyers get paid to do just that.) In her opinion, the Day of Silence was “healthy” for students.1

I found this surprising, given the number of lawsuits and controversies nationwide over students’ right to free speech in the face of administrative opposition. Yet the Allentown school district did not seem idiosyncratic, judging from all the reports of a welcoming attitude to the Day of Silence by school officials elsewhere.

Have school officials learned to live with student demonstrations? Is there something special about the schools or communities where these demonstrations are allowed? Is a commitment to diversity responsible for this reaction or some other factor? The reporting didn’t say.

Nor was there a lot of clarity about the legal issues involved.

In the course of holding that student religious clubs could meet after school hours so long as they did not enjoy official school sanction, the Supreme Court has insisted that the distinction between school sponsorship of speech and school toleration of speech is obvious enough to be grasped by high school students. But not, apparently, by many school officials, parents, members of the public at large—or journalists.

One local school official observed that by allowing the Day of Silence, schools opened themselves to the charge that they supported homosexuality. “Generally, wherever you have a club that sponsors this kind of thing, the view is it’s a school-wide activity,” the superintendent of the Chaffey Joint Union High School District in California told the Inland Valley Bulletin on April 14.

An article in the Bergen (N.J.) Record, also on April 14, reported that the Day of Silence was “endorsed by the Administration,” while at the same time describing it as a project of the local Gay and Straight Alliance, a student sponsored club. To complicate matters further, activities at other schools were described in that article as “not officially recognized.” Similarly, on April 21, the Syracuse (N.Y.) Post-Standard described the event as “student-led” but with “the support of school officials.” What did that mean?

Overall, the articles blurred the line between school sponsorship and school toleration of the Day of Silence. If the former, the Day would be an official school activity; if the latter, it is private student speech occurring on school premises.

Allowing private student speech is not endorsement as far as the law is concerned. But endorsing the effort officially is another thing entirely. Given the controversy over gay rights, the difference is significant. It is unfortunate that the reporting for the most part failed to make this clear.

The blame did not lie entirely with the media. In some schools, it was reported, teachers actively supported the Day of Silence by wearing its symbols or serving as sponsors. It is an open legal question whether teachers have the right to participate in such events during the school day, and it is certainly the case that such participation elides the difference between toleration and support. No teachers were reported to have publicly supported the Day of Truth.

On another front, many stories used such words as “tolerance,” “diversity,” and “harassment,” without qualification or explanation.

•   A school principal in St. Petersburg, Florida, was quoted by R. Catalenello of the St. Petersburg Times on April 13 to the effect that religious critics of the Day of Silence “gave voice to the lack of tolerance the school was [combating] in the first place.” Should it be assumed that tolerance precludes criticism of homosexuality?

•   Supporters of the Day of Truth were reported in several states to be at pains to say that gay students “should not be made fun of” and protesting that they were not “religious bigots.” As one teen supporter of the Day of Truth told the St. Petersburg Times April 14, “[D]iscriminating is just not chill.” But if so, what are these persons’ objections to a Day aimed (at least according to its sponsors) not at endorsing homosexuality but at ending harassment of gay students? No one thought to ask.

•   What did a North Carolina principal mean when, according to an April 14 story by Mindy B. Hagen of the Durham (N.C.) Herald Sun, he promised disciplinary action against participants in the Day of Truth who made “discriminatory” remarks? Is calling homosexuality a sin discriminatory? Again, no one asked.

•   A student supporter of the Day of Silence told the Raleigh (N.C.) News and Observer April 13 that he thought the Day of Truth was fine as long as participants did nothing “aggressive or offensive.” What did he mean by that?

•   According to the April 13 Lancaster (Pa.) Intelligence-Journal, school of-ficials at Exploration High School were determined to minimize “negative student sentiment” toward a school-sponsored day of diversity that was scheduled to coincide with the Day of Silence. How did that square with freedom of speech or thought?

One hopes that during next year’s Day of Truth, reporters could begin asking their interviewees to address such questions.

Several articles, finally, reported that students religiously opposed to homosexuality repeatedly expressed the fear that they would be discriminated against, or labeled bigots, as a result of criticism of the Day of Silence. This accords with my own experience 20 years ago in connection with a legal battle over equal access for student religious clubs.

While the adults were battling over the right to proselytize in the schools, students seeking to organize religious clubs assured me that they had no such intention, and that the clubs were designed solely to enable Christian students to resist a secular onslaught. Such feelings of vulnerability merit further journalistic investigation.

During 2004, Montgomery County, Maryland schools prepared an experimental sex education curriculum that included a matter-of-fact discussion of homosexual sex. Student participation in this part of the program was subject to the right of parents to opt out or choose an abstinence-only program.

In a letter to the Washington Post published December 14, proponents described the proposed discussion as “only about the importance of tolerance [that word again!] and acceptance of sexual variance. Its aim is to dispel stereotypes and bullying.” But in the view of opponents, as expressed in another letter published the same day, the experimental curriculum included “materials published by gay groups, while censoring other points of view.”

Other than reporting on the proposed program a month earlier and publishing an article on opponents December 5, the Post all but ignored the story until opponents filed a lawsuit to stop the program on May 3. By contrast, its cross-town rival, the Washington Times, kept up a regular drumbeat of often lengthy coverage. Persistently, the Times’ stories were written from the critics’ point of view in what struck me as a campaign against the curriculum, not dispassionate reporting.

After the lawsuit was filed, the Post focused on objecting parents’ complaints that they were ignored by the curriculum advisory committee, while the Times emphasized that the opt-out feature would force students to identify themselves as having religious objections or being “ex-gay.” Both papers covered the trial court’s entry of a restraining order banning implementation of the new curriculum on May 5.

According to the Post’s first-day story, the gist of the holding was that the curriculum “present[ed] only one view [on the subject of] homosexuality”—that homosexuality is a natural and morally correct lifestyle. But in a follow-up written (as most of the Post’s stories were) by Lori Aratani, it was pointed out that the court’s principal objection was to materials prepared for teachers in conjunction with the curriculum that “paint certain Christian sects, notably Baptists, which are opposed to homosexuality, as unenlightened and biblically misguided.” By contrast, the reporting in the Times by Jon Ward emphasized the first objection, which is far broader and involves the whole curriculum and not just the teacher’s manual.

The explicit criticism of some faiths, and the comments in the teachers’ guide about the correct interpretation of the Bible, were plainly unconstitutional. It is far less clear, however, that a school cannot constitutionally take a position on an ideologically charged issue such as whether homosexual activity is normal (or, to take another example, whether evolution is a scientifically sound theory). Both newspapers’ stories would have been far better if the reporters had consulted lawyers or law professors, asking them to comment on the alternate grounds of the decision, and pointing out the implications of each.

If the Post downplayed the story before the restraining order, it made up for it later witfirstrate articles exploring the views of parents and students by Paul Duggan on May 19 and Aratani on June 20. Most students quoted by Aratani were blasé, insisting that talk of sex was everywhere in their lives.

As in the Day of Silence/Day of Truth coverage, the teens on both sides often sounded more reasonable than their adult mentors. One hates to think that we need to turn to adolescents for calm and clear-headed thinking about sex, but perhaps it’s a good sign for the future.

The Times’ post-decision stories took the view that the court’s decision was the cutting edge of a national movement to reclaim sex education from the radical left. As one op-ed in the paper put it, at issue was “berserk sexual adventurism.”

For its part, the Post concentrated on talks designed to produce a mutually acceptable compromise, culminating in an announcement of a settlement that the material on various religious traditions would be eliminated. In a June 28 story, the paper reported that two members of the groups opposed to the revised plan would be appointed to the sex-education advisory board—a move the paper praised editorially as reasonable.

Two points are worth emphasizing about the Montgomery dispute.

First, it matters greatly whether a court decides that public schools may not constitutionally teach about contested moral issues without presenting more than one side, or whether it bases its decision on prohibiting public bodies from taking explicit positions on disputed theological premises.

The first is unsustainable as a matter of law. Schools do not need to teach about the desirability of autocracy if they teach the advantages of democracy. Needless to say, it will often (but not always) be politic to teach both sides, and sometimes good education. But there is no constitutional warrant for requiring it.

Only by spotlighting this (un-tenable) explanation for the restraining order could the Washington Times make the Montgomery County case into one of national significance. Indeed, it appears that the plaintiff’s lawyers did not share this view of the case, because the settlement they signed addressed only the narrower reading of the judge’s ruling.

Second, given all the contemporary controversy over sexuality in education, it boggles the mind that the powers-that-be in Montgomery County never seem to have imagined that a significant portion of the citizenry in suburban Washington might object to the sex education curriculum, and that it would be wise to take the opposition seriously. But plainly they didn’t, as evidenced by county school officials’ grossly editorial prediction that the challenge would come to nothing, their failure to notice the obvious and flagrant constitutional violation in endorsing some religious beliefs over others, and their evident shock at the adverse court ruling.

To be sure, readers of the Washington Times would never have guessed that the people who put the sex-ed curriculum together were not 1960s free-love types, or that they were responding in good faith to the realities of contemporary adolescent life. But the Montgomery County dispute is just the latest in a long series of cases involving religion and the public schools in which elites failed to take conservative Christians seriously.

So where does the struggle over homosexuality in the schools stand at this point in time? Where to turn but the country’s newspaper of record—or perhaps not.

On June 9, 2005, the New York Times published a 1,350-word article by Michael Janofsky, “Gay Rights Battlefield Spread To Public Schools,” that begins, “Emboldened by the political right’s growing influence on public policy, opponents of school activities aimed at educating students about homosexuality or promoting acceptance of gay people are mounting challenges to such programs.”

The article backed up this view of the strategic positions of the forces on the battlefield by quoting James Esseks, director of the ACLU Lesbian and Gay Rights Project of the ACLU: “There are a bunch of people who very much want to remove from public discourse any mention of homosexuality.”

Discussing the Montgomery County case, Janofsky omitted any reference to the fact that the teaching materials endorsed some religious views and criticized others, and that a federal court had invalidated the program for that reason. Nor, in his report from the battlefield, was there any mention of tactical efforts on the “gay rights” side, such as at least two widely publicized disputes over students wearing anti-gay t-shirts to school that have ended up in court.

There is also a case in Kentucky in which students opposed to gay rights seek to be excused from “diversity training” classes (a claim that they will likely lose) and assert that they have been punished for expressing disagreement with the school’s point of view. Another involves a diversity day in Ann Arbor, Michigan, in which a panel designed to discuss religious views on homosexuality excluded, with the blessing of school officials, religious spokespersons who believe homosexuality is condemned by the Bible. (As in Montgomery County, a federal district judge held that favoritism toward “progressive” faiths unconstitutional.)

All of the above were the subject of news coverage and reported judicial opinions within six months of the publication of the Times article. They were surely known to some of the experts Janofsky quoted.

Evidently, the Times set out not to describe comprehensively school battles over gay rights but to document an assault by the “political (= religious) right” on enlightened public opinion. By publishing what amounted to an extended opinion piece, the Times only added to the suspicion among traditional Christians that it is biased against them. The real story is more interesting and complex, with blame enough to go around.


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