End of the line for special rights seekers, Part 2

Part 1 is here.

( January 31, 2008) The 1st U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals yesterday agreed with a judge’s decision last year that a school can expose children to contrary ideas without violating their parents’ rights to exercise religious beliefs.

“Public schools,” wrote Judge Sandra L. Lynch, “are not obliged to shield individual students from ideas which potentially are religiously offensive, particularly when the school imposes no requirement that the student agree with or affirm those ideas, or even participate in discussions about them.”

This seems obvious; public schools, being there for the public, serve children from all kinds of families with all kinds of beliefs. That’s what “the public” is, it includes everybody. It’s a bit startling that anyone would demand that their own beliefs be granted a special status wherein no one may contradict them. We saw demands very much like this in Loudoun in 2005, when some activists demanded that students in our public high schools be banned from expressing affirming views of GLBT people.

This is what the attorneys for David Parker, a Massachusetts parent and anti-gay activist, have argued in Parker’s lawsuit against the Lexington school district (see also If only they could hear themselves). Last February the Parkers’ lawsuit was dismissed, and now their appeal of that decision has been denied in a unanimous ruling (read the full text here).

The Parkers insist that if their children are exposed to the idea that other children may have families that don’t look like theirs, they have been stripped of their right to practice their religious beliefs in the upbringing of their children. It’s a strange argument. What religious belief is this, exactly, that is threatened simply by the expression of a different belief? What “rights” under the Free Exercise Clause are violated by the mere presence of other families at a school? Whatever they are, the Parkers intend to present them to the Supreme Court if they can get a hearing.

Here is some history of how this came about, as described in the 2006 lawsuit:

The Administrators agreed to meet with the Parkers to consider their several requests, which appeared related to a picture book entitled “Who’s in a Family?” The book was among several included in a “diversity book bag” that children in the Lexington Public Schools are permitted to take home for parents to read with their child if they wish. The book is designed for young children and includes illustrations of children accompanied by various parent figures, including two individuals of different genders, two individuals of the same gender, grandparents, bi-racial couples, as well as a one-parent family.

In particular, the Parkers requested the Administrators to ensure that in the future, teachers automatically excuse or remove the Parkers’ child when discussions about such issues arise, even if spontaneously…

…The Administrators explained…that implementation of the Parkers’ request was simply not practical, since children could even discuss such matters among themselves at school…

…Mr. Parker made it clear that he would not leave unless his demands were met.

Eventually it was time for all the employees to go home. Parker insisted that unless he was under arrest, he would not leave. He was then arrested for trespassing. Since then, he has become a useful tool of the anti-gay media universe.

Since it’s our simple participation in the mundane details of life that makes the demonization of GLBT people by anti-gay activists look so silly, the objective of these activists is to do everything in their power to suppress or obscure that participation, even to the point of absurdity. Terrance at Republic of T is a gay father of two boys (one of whom is named, confusingly for this story, Parker) who could easily be caught up in the sort of ridiculous scenario demanded by the Parkers. After describing some of his son’s typical school activities, he asks incredulously:

What would [David Parker] have the teachers do? Stop circle time and call him to make sure it was OK for my son to talk about his family? Tell my son not to talk about his family, or what terms he can use to talk about his family? Would he require advance warning that the hubby and I are coming to the class performance together, or that we’re both picking Parker up from school? What would he have the school do?

Judging from the Parker’s own stated demands, they would have the teacher immediately “remove the Parkers’ child” in the event that a child with two mommies or two daddies begins to share what they did with their family that weekend, in exactly the same way all the other children talk about their families.

That’s what people like David Parker fear; that their kids will see our families, see our families treated just like any other family, and end up being “fine” with it.

Is that “affirmation and normalization”?

Yes, it is. That’s exactly what the Anti-Gay Industry means by that phrase. This line from the January 30 ruling is very telling: “They fear their own inability as parents to counter the school’s approval of gay marriage [sic].”

Although the lawsuit was ostensibly about notification of the use of curricular materials, the Parker’s problem would not have been solved by such notification. Massachusetts law already requires parental notification and the opportunity to “opt-out” of curriculum “which primarily involves sexual education or human sexuality issues,” and books about who’s in a family do not meet that standard. The Parker’s demand was one that was not only constitutionally unsupportable, but impossible for the administration to satisfy. The Lexington school district serves many types of families, and the administrators earlier tried to explain this to the Parkers.

The school department said, ‘Look, we’ll work with you, but we cannot assure you what a child is going to say and that we can immediately stop a discussion that you find objectionable,'” said [Superintendent] Ash. “One of the central units in kindergarten is the discussion of families and we show families of all different types.” Ash says the discussions “ended up in an irreconcilable difference.”

People like the Parkers fear their own “inability as parents to counter” affirming views of GLBT people, not because schools are “systematically indoctrinating [their] young children,” as they put it, but because their young children attend school with a variety of other young children. All of them have an equal right to see themselves represented in the curriculum. All of them have an equal right to be “embraced,” “affirmed,” “celebrated” and “validated” as loved members of their own families, an individual’s explicit objection to these expressions notwithstanding. The educational materials include representations of families that look like the Parkers; they are not being excluded. What they object to, and the basis of their claim of discrimination, is that families that look like theirs are not presented as the only acceptable kind. That is not discrimination. As the Court concluded:

Exposure to the materials in dispute here will not automatically and irreversibly prevent the parents from raising Jacob and Joey in the religious belief that gay marriage is immoral…

…as to the parents’ free exercise rights, the mere fact that a child is exposed on occasion in public school to a concept offensive to a parent’s religious belief does not inhibit the parent from instructing the child differently.

It seems to me that the Parkers are confusing their right to direct the upbringing of their children to embrace their beliefs with their ability to do so. They are essentially demanding that the public school system make special accommodations to help them indoctrinate their children with their personal beliefs, accommodations that require other beliefs to be literally silenced.

Someone in Loudoun made a very similar demand a few years ago, during the play policy conflict. He also wanted any affirming expressions by or about GLBT people silenced. “I’m trying to raise my children in a very rigid value system,” the man told the School Board, “and I could use your help with that.” He’s right that the visibility of GLBT people and our families makes anti-gay indoctrination more difficult. He’s dead wrong, though, to think that our public schools owe him any special help with the problem this poses for him.

Parents like the Parkers and their allies will try to set up a false moral equivalency here, arguing that the schools, in the interest of teaching tolerance, are just making special accommodations for a different ideology. There is no moral equivalency. Providing a place at the table for everyone, including those who wish to exclude others, is not the equivalent of actually allowing that group to exclude others, under the banner of respect for their beliefs. The first represents equal rights. The second represents special rights.

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5 Responses to End of the line for special rights seekers, Part 2

  1. Pingback: Equality Loudoun » First, they came for the penguins

  2. Ed Myers says:

    Just to be a contrarian, why do we have rules that prevent students from expressing their viewpoint that gays are strange or unnatural and it is behavior and not an innate characteristic? Schools restrict that as hate speech particularily when done in a crude way. So isn’t it fair and equal if we just say we aren’t going to talk about it at all in schools because it is too polarizing and distracting?

    I’m reluctant to give up moral training to government and the glbt community should too. If you can use government to promote that gay is good than the next election can bring a government that promotes gay is bad. Government shouldn’t do moralizing. Schools are for learning facts and we should leave the moral interpretations to parents and religious communities. Focus on making sure that facts are correct and balanced. The fact that households have a variety of compositions is something children need to learn without the moral subjectivism of whether some households are “preferred.” That means schools can’t leave out same-sex households in the curriculum to pretend they don’t exist. But we also shouldn’t use schools to attempt to stamp out the bigotry children might learn from their parents; we can only correct any false facts that the bigotry might be based on and hope that the children become more enlightened. (I say this with the belief that there is bigotry on both sides of this issue and I too probably share that affliction!)

  3. David says:

    Hi Ed,

    I’m pretty much in agreement with you, actually. I don’t think that the expression of contrary viewpoints should be treated as “hate speech.” If it’s name-calling/verbal abuse, that’s unacceptable behavior in any case. I’m not sure where you would draw the line there; calling another person “strange” or “unnatural” could certainly be verbal abuse, very intentionally so. On the other hand, that viewpoint could be presented in a way that was an honest attempt at engagement. A good teacher should be able to discern that and address the situation on both tracks if necessary.

    Assuming it’s not abusive, such expressions should be treated as teachable moments in cases where an idea is factually incorrect. The objective should be, as you say, making sure the facts are correct. This would be the case, for example, if a child were saying that “being gay is a behavior.” All sex is a behavior; orientations are an innate characteristic, independent of behavior. Straight people who don’t have sex are still straight, right? There is no need to promote a characteristic or a behavior as either good or bad in a moral sense. I agree with you there.

    When you say

    The fact that households have a variety of compositions is something children need to learn without the moral subjectivism of whether some households are “preferred.” That means schools can’t leave out same-sex households in the curriculum to pretend they don’t exist.

    that’s exactly the crux of the matter to parents like the Parkers. It’s unacceptable to them for the schools to not teach that some households (theirs) are preferred. They can’t have that, so they demand that the curriculum, and absurdly, even spontaneous conversation in the classroom, pretend that same-sex households don’t exist.

    From reading the rulings in this case, I think the Lexington district is in fact doing exactly what you suggest here, just presenting the facts of life as they are in that community. I don’t see any evidence that the Parkers or their children are being denied the right to express themselves, and if I did I would very much oppose that. Ditto for any evidence that they were being teased or called names because of their family’s beliefs. That family must feel very much like a minority in that community, and as unreasonable as I find their demands and the burden they’ve placed on the school district, they are entitled to the same respect as everyone else.

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