Conservatives' widening war on gay rights

Emboldened by victories in 11 states last fall against same-sex marriage, now they're going after programming in public schools.

By Mark Follman
Published June 9, 2005 8:42PM (EDT)

Dr. James Dobson, the man who has it in for the overly tolerant SpongeBob SquarePants, will no doubt be heartened by this piece in today's New York Times. America's fight over gay rights, pegged last fall to proposed bans on same-sex marriage in 11 states (all of which passed), is now taking place on a wider battlefield. According to the Times, conservatives are winning on other fronts now, too.

"Emboldened by the political right's growing influence on public policy, opponents of school activities aimed at educating students about homosexuality or promoting acceptance of gay people are mounting challenges to such programs, at individual schools, at statehouses and in Congress. Chief among the targets are sex education programs that include discussions of homosexuality, and after-school clubs that bring gay and straight students together, two initiatives that gained assent in numerous schools over the last decade.

"In many cases, the opponents have been successful. In Montgomery County, Md., for example, parents went to court to block a health education course that offered a discussion of homosexuality, while in Cleveland, Ga., gay and lesbian students were barred from forming a high school club of gay and straight youths.

"Leading figures on both sides of the fight say they have never seen passions about public school activities run so high. They agree that much of the reason is conservative groups' eagerness to meet their adversaries with a forcefulness more common to modern-day election campaigns."

The core issues involved are challenging ones: determining whether classrooms are an appropriate venue to explore issues of homosexuality, whether schools should sanction extracurricular activities in which gay culture is a focus, and whether textbooks acknowledging homosexual relationships are suitable for younger children. But what's striking, and a bit chilling, is the rhetoric -- seemingly more accepted now -- from the side that's gained the upper hand.

"We're concerned about the effort to capture youth through indoctrination into the homosexual lifestyle," said Mathew Staver, the president of Liberty Counsel. "Students are a captive audience, and they are being targeted by groups with that as an agenda."

This April, in response to the National Day of Silence, an event sponsored for nine years by the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network to protest discrimination in schools, the conservative group Alliance Defense Fund launched its own event for high school students, offering "an opportunity for Christian students to counter the promotion of the homosexual agenda at schools across America. The "respectful debate" included having participating students wear T-shirts and hand out cards bearing the message, "I believe in equal treatment for all, and not special rights for a few. I believe in loving my neighbor, but part of that love means not condoning detrimental personal and social behavior."

The event was billed as the Day of Truth.

Mark Follman

Mark Follman is Salon's deputy news editor. Read his other articles here.

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