Rockville, Maryland has become the epicenter of America’s culture wars. Parents in the area largely support a new sex education curriculum. National conservative religious / political groups oppose these local efforts to educate children about sexual issues. The fault lines are everywhere. The outside political groups are angry, for example, that teenagers would be taught to use condoms and that homosexuality would be presented in a positive light. The program has been suspended by a court order until the curriculum can be further studied. Gazette.net reports on the reaction from parents:
Peter J. Petesch is disappointed that his eighth-grader will not be able to take part in a discussion of sexual orientation at Tilden Middle School in Rockville.
Petesch also is disturbed that his daughter and her classmates now find themselves at the center of a debate that some parents said is imposing the will of religious conservatives and outsiders on their children's education.
"It's important for her -- and generally important for the children in our county -- to get a message of tolerance on the issue of gays and lesbians and then get the message on ways to save their life and health," said Petesch, an attorney from Rockville who once co-chaired a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention committee that looked at the business and labor response to AIDS. "I'm also disturbed that our county is becoming a beachhead for the religious far-right to try to dictate what our children will be taught."
All theological issues can be and are at some level controversial. Some of the most controversial issues deal with how we view sexuality from a theological standpoint. Is human sexuality a gift from God that should be explored and celebrated? Or is sexuality a problematic function of human nature that brings humans all too often into sinful relationships that dishonor God? This debate plays out in public institutions – such as schools and legislative bodies – and in churches. Many denominations have developed sexual education programs to help children and young adults examine human sexuality. How those programs are developed speaks volumes of the hermeneutical approaches used by churches to discern the meaning of scripture (or to examine their own traditions, etc.) to find meaning in sexual relations. Some churches demand a strict fidelity to what they consider literal interpretations of scripture (no sexual relations outside of marriage, etc.). The United Church of Christ and the Unitarian Universalist Association have jointly developed sex education resources for all age groups that present a more progressive theological viewpoint.
The Our Whole Lives curriculum is comprehensive. Programs for grades K-1 and 4-6 include eight sessions that each last one hour. 27 sessions – each lasting 1.5 hours - are included for the materials made available for grades 7-9. Students in grades 10-12 take part in 14 sessions that will last two hours each. Several sessions are also held to orientate parents. Those who teach the curriculum are required to participate in extensive training sessions for each age group they will teach. Teachers must be certified by the national offices of the UCC before materials for the classes are made available for use by local congregations. Classes are held for different age groups to provide information for participants who are at different developmental stages. The K-1 class, for example, focuses on helping students develop appropriate language skills for body parts and helps to foster a respect for diverse families early on. Sessions for grades 7-9 focus on more of the “specific developmental issues of early adolescents.” The resources developed for grades 10-12 is the most advanced in terms of content (which makes sense considering the age group involved) and because of the issues discussed has the potential for causing the most controversy in local churches using the program.
The curriculum developed for grades 10-12 is "designed to help adolescents":
• Affirm and respect themselves as sexual persons (including their bodies, sexual orientations, feelings, etc.) and respect the sexuality of others.
• Become more comfortable and skilled in discussing and negotiating sexuality issues with peers, romantic partners, and people of other generations.
• Explore, develop and articulate values, attitudes, and feelings about their own sexuality and the sexuality of others.
• Identify, and live according to, their values.
• Increase motivation and skills for developing a just sexual morality that rejects double standards, stereotypes, biases, exploitation, dishonesty, and abuse.
• Acquire the knowledge and skills needed for developing and maintaining romantic or sexual relationships that are consensual, mutually pleasurable, non-exploitative, safe, and based on respect, mutual expectations and caring.
• Acquire the knowledge and skills needed to avoid unintended pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases.
• Express and enjoy sexuality in healthy and responsible ways at each stage of their development.
• Asses the impact of messages from family, culture, religion, media, and society on sexual thoughts, feelings, values, and behaviors.
These goals are not those shared by many sexual education classes offered in gym classes across America. What these goals represent is a very specific vision of what church is. “Responsible choice about sexual matters is at the heart of the Christian life,” write the authors of the Our Wholes Lives curriculum. “Therefore, the Christian community is obligated to provide information and opportunities for understanding the choices we face.” In terms used by Karen Tye in her book the Basics of Christian Education, the authors of this curriculum clearly see their goals for Christian education as nurture, critical thinking, belief formation, and faith development. It is hoped that students who finish the program leave with a good sense of who they are as sexual beings, can make decisions about sexual activity within a moral framework that they can articulate, and that they will make responsible decisions that protect both themselves and sexual partners from harm. All of these classes are offered within, as mentioned above, a progressive Christian framework. But what does that mean?
Classes are structured in fairly traditional ways. Each class begins with an opening ritual and ends with a closing ritual. The companion guide developed for the curriculum has suggested bible readings for these rituals, suggests the lightening of candles to help remind “participants of the presence of the Divine” during their sessions, and suggests that a table be made available for use as a worship center. These are rituals that remind us of the Christian tradition we are part of and would be familiar in many churches regardless of their theology. It is in the principles guiding the development of this UCC curriculum that offer us a sense that this program is different from many in use by churches today. Some excerpts:
As Christians, we look to the scriptures as the primary guide of knowing how God’s spirit moves in our midst. In matters of human sexuality, we do not limit our study of the scriptures to those passages where words such as sex, marriage, and divorce are found. The great biblical themes of creation, exodus, incarnation, resurrection, love, and justice can inform our discussions and decision making about human sexuality.
At the heart of the Torah, the Prophets, and the Gospels is the call to love God, neighbors, and ourselves, and to serve justice in human relationships and society. No valid interpretation can ignore, or contradict, this call to love and justice.
To say that the Bible is the primary source of inspiration and knowledge for Christians does not mean that it is the only one. Our understanding of human sexuality can be deepened and enriched when we avail ourselves of accurate and up-to-date information and research. We affirm the reality of the living Spirit that moves where it will and is as active in our days as in the days when scriptures were recorded.
These theological assumptions allow UCC congregations to offer classes for students that go far beyond what any school or most churches would offer. Can you imagine a Southern Baptist congregation teaching students that homosexuality is a healthy and positive lifestyle or a Mormon congregation teaching that masturbation is healthy self expression? You obviously would not see curriculum with similar hermeneutical approaches in many churches. Even with UCC congregations there is great theological diversity. It is hard to imagine some of our rural congregations – where sexual diversity is not always valued the same – would feel comfortable using Our Whole Lives to teach their children about sex. Determining whether or not this material would be appropriate for your congregation would have a great deal to do with determining the theology of your church. This curriculum would not work in every context and the UCC does not attempt to force it on any church.
The Unitarian Universalist Association uses this same curriculum. Actually, the curriculum itself is designed so that it could be used by many different religious traditions and even secular groups. The materials produced by the UCC and UUA do not include religious language. However, the companion guides to the series (available for each age group) offer the theological rational behind the courses and the suggestions on scripture readings, etc. The resources suggested for use in UUA churches obviously has a different theological take on which the program should be used. “Our Whole Lives is religious because it seeks to nurture religious community, spiritual depth, prophetic vision, and action for justice. It is religious because it helps participants clarify their own religious values and gain the skills and knowledge they need to live out those values. It is religious because it promotes the worth and dignity of every participant,” states their extensive web site explaining the program to UUA members. There is no overt Christian rational for offering the program to UUA churches.
Other denominations also offer curriculum for sex education that would use nurture, critical thinking, belief formation, and faith development as goals. The United Methodist Church, for example, offers a course called Good Sex. However, the theological assumptions made by the United Methodists are different. Homosexuality, for example, is considered “incompatible with Christianity” in official UMC doctrine. The United Methodist News service reports:
The United Methodist Church emphasizes the importance of sex education and chastity before marriage in official statements found in the denomination’s Social Principles.
"Although all persons are sexual beings whether or not they are married, sexual relations are only clearly affirmed in the marriage bond," the church declares in its "Human Sexuality" statement.
In the "Rights of Children," the church says: "All children have the right to quality education, including full sex education appropriate to their stage of development that utilizes the best educational techniques and insights. Christian parents and guardians and the church have the responsibility to ensure that children receive sex education consistent with Christian morality, including faithfulness in marriage and abstinence in singleness."
"The supervision and love of Christian parents and other caring adults, supported by the extended church family, are the primary source of sex education," the church says. "A comprehensive approach to sex education offers an additional basis for countering pornography.
"Children, youth, and adults need opportunities to discuss sexuality and learn from quality sex education materials in families, churches and schools. An alternative message to pornography, contained in carefully prepared, age-appropriate sex education materials that are both factual and explicit and portray caring, mutually consenting relationships between married adults, is needed. Materials should be measured by the intentions expressed and the goals served, not by the degree of explicitness of sexual imagery.
The materials used by the UCC and UUA, in contrast to the United Methodist Church, are very explicit and value sexual relations inside and outside of marriage. All three of these religious bodies, however, share a goal of keeping children from entering into sexual relations before they have attained a certain level of maturity. In any event, materials used by the United Methodist Church are more in line with traditional ways of understanding sexual relations in a Christian context. The argument can be effectively made, however, that the traditional ways of thinking on sexual health and morality do not take into account the reality that young people do have sex outside of marriage and are at increased risk for deadly disease. What the UCC and UUA have developed speaks more to the current reality faced by many young people and can be a very valuable resource. Recent studies have found that abstinence based sexual education fails to keep students from having sex – but does keep them away from using condoms which can protect them from disease.
Schools – like those in Rockville – should offer comprehensive sex education. But our churches – especially those that share a progressive theology – are going to have to be more proactive in offering programs like Our Whole Lives. If the religious right can keep sound educational programs out of schools we’ll need to bring those programs into our churches. Lives literally depend on it.
Click here to learn about The Responsible Education About Life Act: Helping Kids Make Educated Decisions About Sex - legislation that is now before Congress. Our public schools need help and this legislation would provide it.