Colorado's proposed sex ed curriculum: Which religious groups protested it?

Maybe I’ve been sleeping under a rock recently, but I didn’t realize that half the metro Denver area was abuzz with a proposed sex education curriculum for its public schools.

As I looked at various media accounts, only one religious group — Catholics — stood out as opposing the substantial changes in how Colorado kids would learn about sex. There’s no mention of organized resistance from other groups, even the evangelical behemoth, Focus on the Family, an hour south of Denver.

Here’s the big question: How far into the story do readers need to dig to find out the crucial question here is parental rights, in terms of having the ability to opt out of classes that violate their religious convictions?

We’ll start with the Denver Post’s coverage, then branch out.

After more than 10 hours of debate and the testimony — both written and spoken — of more than 300 people, Democrats on a Colorado House committee approved a sexual education bill shortly before midnight Wednesday.

If it passes the General Assembly, the bill would amend a 2013 law by removing a waiver for public charter schools that lets them pick other sex ed criteria. It would also fund a grant program for schools that lack the resources to teach human sexuality and expand upon the LGBT relationship portion of the curriculum requirements.

The new section on teaching about “healthy relationships” and the “different relationship models” students may encounter appeared to be the touchstone for most of the objections from parents, educators and faith leaders Wednesday. Dozens of speakers told the committee they worry that if the General Assembly passes the bill, school districts will be teaching kids about sexual acts and lifestyles their faith disagrees with.

“If you’re for House Bill 1032, then you’re for exposing 9-year-olds to sexually explicit techniques,” said James Rea, a father of four. “We don’t want to expose our children to this kind of forced sexual education.”

Who are the “faith leaders” involved? One, according to CruxNow, is the Catholic archbishop of Denver. Crux said:

“We know that God made us male and female, in his image and likeness, but the comprehensive curriculum route which most schools will likely adopt teaches innocent children this is not true,” Denver Archbishop Samuel J. Aquila said.

“Specifically, public schools would have to promote abortion as an equal option to life, and parents wouldn’t be notified before lessons were presented on gender-identity and sexual orientation,” he added. “Each of us must do our part to fight this legislation.”

But at the Denver Post, the archbishop — leader of the state’s largest flock of believers — only rated a mention in a sidebar about social media reaction to the bill. Back to the main Post story:

One of the more tense exchanges came when a father from Lakewood, James Powers, said “this legislation is evil” and “causing little ones to sin.” He told the committee voting for the bill could be considered a sin, in part because it would require teachers to talk about abortion as one of several options available to young women who become pregnant.

“I take offense with a few things that you said,” responded Rep. Janet Buckner, D-Aurora.

She told Powers that she herself is a Christian and that her interpretation of the bill is that it does not promote abortion.

So what’s causing all the fury?

I looked at another piece from the Post and learned that it would ban abstinence-only education. That is, most public schools have taught “comprehensive sex education” since 2013 but some charter and rural schools have been allowed to opt out. (The Post did not explain what “comprehensive sex education” is but apparently it means including abstinence as an option). This new bill would force the latter to either teach according to the new guidelines or not teach about sex at all.

The Post did sketch out the basic provisions of this bill. This is long, but essential.

Please read through it all and note, once again, the issue of parental rights:

· Classes would have to include “medically accurate information about all preventive methods to avoid unintended pregnancy and sexually transmitted infections, including HIV/AIDS” and be taught in a way that students are “empowered to decide for themselves which preventative methods are best suited for their individual needs, beliefs and values.”

· Public schools would be prohibited from endorsing “sexual abstinence as the primary or sole acceptable preventive method available to students. Such instruction is not comprehensive and is inconsistent with the requirements of this section.”

· Teachers wouldn’t have to talk about pregnancy, but if they do it says they can’t exclude options like adoption or abortion, and they can’t show a preference for one choice over another.

· Lessons about human sexuality could not “explicitly or implicitly” endorse a particular religious ideology.

· Lessons also couldn’t use “shame-based or stigmatizing language or instructional tools” or exclude “the relational or sexual experiences of lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender individuals.”

· Parents would have to be notified about human sexuality classes and given the option to remove their children, but they wouldn’t have to be notified about lesson plans on sexual orientation and healthy relationships.

Hmmm … I can see why religious groups might have a problem with this bill. If your faith, based on 2,000 years of doctrine, believes that abortion is wrong, that homosexual expression is immoral and that you as a parent won’t be told when your kiddo is getting lessons on sexual orientation, that would press a lot of buttons.

The piece adds that the Colorado Catholic Conference opposes the bill, but lifts some quotes from a Catholic News Agency story as proof. Note to the reporter: Why not pick up the phone and call the executive director yourself?

The Colorado Springs Gazette brought more of a faith angle into its coverage:

Most of those who came to testify were opposed to the bill. Some spoke out against standards that have existed in state law since 2013. Few talked about the issues the bill is intended to address.

Among the few was attorney Kristi Burton Brown, who challenged the section of the bill that disallows teaching based on religious ideology.

“Religious neutrality is constitutional,” Brown said. “Bias against religion is not.”

Robin Coran, an ordained minister who is also part of Republican U.S. Rep. Ken Buck’s staff, said he expected lawmakers to follow the constitution. “This legislation strips rights from parents and children. It’s an attack on free speech, religious liberty and property rights” and demonstrates an intolerance for biological facts and religion, he said.

A few paragraphs below was a passage that earns my nomination for weirdest thing written on the bill:

Then there was an exchange between Democratic Rep. Brianna Titone and a Catholic priest who was on hand to testify against the bill.

Titone asked the priest if he abstains from sex, which drew howls from the audience. The priest said he learns about sex from confession.

“I sure didn’t see that response coming!” Titone said later in a tweet. “Although I’m pretty sure that testimony from the confessional is not the type of ‘expertise’ that will help young people practice safe sex.”

Had I been that priest, I would have asked Titone why she wanted to know!

I haven’t seen the Denver archbishop quoted in any of the secular media except for this piece in the Colorado Times-Recorder, a liberal news site that includes the former communications director for ACLU of Colorado as one of its writers. The archbishop got a fair amount of ink here.

But were there no other Protestant or Muslim or Jewish or Orthodox or Mormon or fill-in-the-blank religious leaders protesting this or are the Catholics alone on this one? I suspect the folks reporting on this think that all religious folks think alike on this bill, thus it’s not worth looking up dissenting opinions. But I daresay you’d find quite the gamut.

After all, the proposed bill does include a few slaps at faith-based approaches to sex (without saying as much), so you’d think there’d be some effort to get some faith react in there. Then again, Denver hasn’t had much in the way of religion coverage for years, so why start now?

Then again, it isn’t every day the local Catholic archbishop speaks out on public policy. Where’s the local Episcopal bishop on this? Or folks from Denver’s two seminaries? The Colorado Council of Churches? There’s a rich field of sources to cultivate out here. Let’s hope someone mines it.

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