Colo. sex ed bill advances despite vocal opposition

Colo. sex ed bill advances despite vocal opposition

Colorado State Capitol. Credit: f11photo / Shutterstock.
Colorado State Capitol. Credit: f11photo / Shutterstock.

.- A controversial sex ed bill was approved by a Colorado House committee this week, despite significant concerns voiced by Coloradans at a hearing at the state legislature.

“Many parents are very concerned about what this would mean for their children, especially those in public schools, who will be faced with this,” said Jennifer Kraska, executive director of the Colorado Catholic Conference, adding that the content of the sex ed curriculum under the bill is an open question.

House Bill 1032 would ban abstinence-only sex education in favor of “comprehensive sex education.” On Wednesday, the Colorado House of Representatives’ Health and Insurance Committee heard 10 hours of written and spoken testimony from more than 300 people on the bill.

Foes of the bill significantly outnumbered supporters among the speakers, but the Democrat-controlled committee voted shortly before midnight to pass the bill by a vote of 7-4, split along party lines.

Many speakers worried that if the bill becomes law, school districts will teach children about sex acts and relationships that contradict their religion.

Responses to bill critics claimed the curriculum would be age-appropriate and exclude “more egregious things,” but this is not stated anywhere in the bill, said Kraska.

“It’s disingenuous for people to say nothing bad will be taught when we don’t know what the curriculum will look like in Colorado,” Kraska said, adding that teachers too could have concerns about the bill’s mandates.

“Depending on the kind of curriculum that is used, there might be other subject matters that teachers might be uncomfortable teaching,” she said.

The bill’s text says that nothing in it shall be construed to prohibit discussion of individuals’ “moral, ethical and religious values” related to relationships, sexuality, or family formation.

However, the bill summary says that comprehensive sex education “prohibits instruction from explicitly or implicitly teaching or endorsing religious ideology or sectarian tenets or doctrines, using shame-based or stigmatizing language or instructional tools, employing gender norms or gender stereotypes, or excluding the relational or sexual experiences of lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender individuals.”

In an interview earlier in January, Kraska encouraged a skeptical approach to such language, saying it means in effect “that people or families with certain beliefs and teachings about sex, relationships and gender (like those of the Catholic Church) are basically wrong in their beliefs and teachings.”

This will likely stigmatize these students and families, she said.

Kraska lamented that the Jan. 30 committee hearing did not look more closely at the ability of parents to opt out of the sex education lessons for their children.

The opt-out clause “isn’t an adequate response for parents who have legitimate concerns,” she said. It only applies to human sexuality instruction and does not allow parents to opt out of curriculum that deals with sexuality and gender.

The bill explicitly says a school is not required to give written notification to parents “for programming on gender, gender expression, sexual orientation, or healthy relationships that occurs outside the context of human sexuality instruction.”

Even where the opt-out clause applies, schools don’t distribute information uniformly and nothing is done in a uniform manner across the state, Kraska said.

Kristi Burton-Brown, a constitutional attorney, told legislators she saw legal trouble in the bill’s simultaneous claim to teach an undefined “healthy relationship” while simultaneously banning any teaching of gender norms.

“Legally, this presupposes that a relationship based on gender norms cannot be healthy,” Burton-Brown objected, saying this is viewpoint discrimination regarding what would be taught to children about their own parents.

While religious neutrality is neutral, she said, religious bias is not. The bill’s phrasing about viewpoints that cannot be taught is a form of religious bias, she argued. Parental rights are also affected by the bill’s limited parental notification provision.

Archbishop Samuel J. Aquila has opposed the bill on multiple grounds and encouraged Coloradans to contact their legislators. In a Jan. 28 letter, he said “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.”

According to Kraska, the bill would require that pregnancy in curricula be addressed by teaching abortion, adoption, and raising the baby as equal options. This concern was also raised by parents at the hearing.

Rep. Janet Buckner, D-Aurora, argued that in her interpretation the bill does not promote abortion, the Denver Post reports.

Several Colorado students who backed the bill said they had received deeply inadequate sex ed in school.

Gianella Millan, an 18-year-old graduate of a Denver charter school, said that “withholding information… does not keep young people from having sex.”

“It can and does put them in risky situations,” she said, according to the Denver Post.

Father Daniel Nolan, F.S.S.P., assistant pastor of Our Lady of Mount Carmel Parish in Littleton, Colo., spoke at the hearing.

“Bullying of any kind is inappropriate and needs to be addressed,” he said, adding “I do not think endorsing LGBT relationships as safe and healthy is the answer.”

Nolan voiced concerns about studies showing abuse is higher in same-sex relationships. Official endorsement of such lifestyles as safe and healthy will affect a student’s right to disagree, he said.

“Students will be subjected to emotional and psychological pressure from the state,” he warned, saying that the government of Colorado will become “the bully on a massive scale.”

Legislators sought out Nolan’s thoughts on additional aspects, including whether a putatively comprehensive sex education could exclude non-physical aspects of sex. There was also a provocative question from Rep. Brianna Titone, D-Arvada, the first transgender legislator elected in Colorado.

“As a Catholic priest, are you abstaining from sex?” Titone asked Nolan, prompting groans from the crowd and loud boos. The hearing chair had to rap the gavel several times to call the room to order.

“Well, I am a handsome man,” joked Nolan, a U.S. Marine Corps veteran.

“To follow up the question, which was my main point, you seem to be an expert on the topic, how did you become an expert on the topic?” Titone asked.

“I hear confessions,” Nolan replied, drawing laughs from the crowd.

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

Backers of the bill include Planned Parenthood, the largest performer of abortions in the U.S. and a major distributor of contraceptives, as well as the American Civil Liberties Union.

Kraska voiced hope that parents will continue to speak against the bill, engage with elected officials and “make their voice heard.” Even though the bill passed out of the first committee despite opposition from the “vast majority” of citizens who spoke, the bill “still has a way to go.”

“What was amazing to see is that so many people showed up and took an interest in the process and made their voice heard,” she said.
 

Tags: Abortion, Catholic News, Sexual Education, Colorado