The ABCs of Tolerance

Kindergartner Jacob Parker brought home a "diversity" book bag that included a picture book called "Who's in a Family?"

The book shows a variety of families, including a mom-dad family, a family headed by a grandmother, an animal family and a family headed by lesbian moms. "Who's in a family? The people who love you the most!" the book ends.

In the same Massachusetts elementary school, second-grader Joey Wirthlin listened as his teacher read from another picture book, "King & King." A prince, told by his mother Queen to marry, passes over several princesses before falling in love with another prince. The princes kiss on the final page, and a red heart is superimposed on their lips.

The parents of Jacob and Joey sued in federal court, charging that because they believe homosexuality is immoral, the school violated their constitutionally protected freedom of religion by introducing their children to the gay-friendly material.

Fortunately, a three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the First Circuit unanimously ruled in favor recently of the Lexington school's efforts to promote tolerance.

"Public schools 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," the court ruled in Parker v. Hurley.

That case is just one of a series of high-profile clashes over gay issues in public schools.

What ties them together, notes American Civil Liberties Union attorney Ken Choe, is the effort by gay-rights foes "to erase discussions about anything gay" from public schools.

Recent battles:

Over the objections of some religious conservatives, a Maryland court ruled in favor of Montgomery County's addressing sexual orientation in middle and high schools.

The ACLU is suing Ponce de Leon High School in Florida for banning such things as gay-friendly rainbow stickers and claiming they "likely would be disruptive" and would suggest students were part of a "secret/illegal organization."

Under pressure from the ACLU, a high school in Portsmouth, Va., agreed not to again censor a student who wore a T-shirt with a lesbian pride symbol.

In a disturbing federal court case, the Okeechobee, Fla., school board is trying to shut down a gay-straight student club, using taxpayer-paid "experts" to argue such clubs are inherently harmful.

A pair of federal cases finds the ACLU on the other side, trying to protect the rights of kids to wear anti-gay T-shirts with hostile slogans or to voice disagreement with material in gay-friendly harassment-prevention programs.

The Parker ruling doesn't order public schools to teach gay-friendly messages, but instead backs up those choosing to do so.

And, while it technically applies only to the First Circuit -- Massachusetts, Maine, New Hampshire, Rhode Island and Puerto Rico -- the ruling is likely to influence other federal circuits dealing with similar objections by small groups of parents riled up over educators' overdue attempts to encourage tolerance.

As American society grows more gay-friendly, so must public schools: All school kids need to learn the ABCs of tolerance.



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