It’s tough out there in the culture wars and Jim Daly has the battle scars to prove it.
But does the top executive of Focus on the Family believe he can ever successfully declare a truce with forces that seem determined to discredit his ministry? Can Daly ever dilute Focus on the Family’s message enough to win his opponents’ approval?
There are radical groups declaring vehemently that the Colorado Springs-based ministry founded in 1977 by Dr. James Dobson is a “hate group” because it opposes same-sex marriage.
Focus on the Family historically also has opposed abortion, divorce, gambling, pornography, pre-marital sex and drug abuse. It promotes teenage sexual abstinence, corporal punishment and school prayer.
“We must speak truth,” says Daly, “but do so in a way that represents the Gospel.”
And that’s the theme of his new book ReFocus: Living a Life that Reflects God’s Heart.
Speaking the truth does not include diluting the Focus on the Family message, he insists. “We must speak truth in such a way that people can hear what we have to say. They can disagree with us without being in violent disagreement with us. We can do things on our side to avoid hostility even though there’s great disagreement. I believe that.”
That’s a tough assignment in today’s cultural environment, which conservative author Andrea Tantaros describes as one in which anyone standing up for traditional morality and speaking out against such issues as same-sex marriage “cannot voice a dissenting opinion without being assaulted” by vitriolic opponents who are “not interested in debating, only suppressing debate. Destroying your life and career is the sentence for anyone who dissents on these issues. The activists will carry out the sentence with the willing assistance of a compliant media.”
Daly’s not so sure the situation is so hopeless. “God knows how the human heart is constructed emotionally,” he says. “He knows if people talk to each other with respect and sincerity, guess what happens, a person’s heart begins to open up. So, I don’t think it’s about diluting the message in order to gain acceptance.”
Our culture is in turmoil, admits Daly. “Part of the difficulty today is that in the past, there was a cohesiveness when it came to our moral code. It was built on Christian principles. Our culture generally understood those principles and agreed with them, even through they knew they couldn’t live up to them. So, people knew they were not supposed to lie. There was a social stigma to stealing, to divorce and to cheating. Many of our institutions were built on the idea of the golden rule and principles of honesty.
“But as the decades have slipped by, we look around and wonder what has happened. How did we get to such a place as we find ourselves today? There’s a bit of panic.
“For example, marriage is an example of God’s character in us,” says Daly. “God starts with Genesis and goes all the way through Revelation using marriage as a metaphor of His relationship to us.”
But today marriage is under attack. “I think one reason today’s culture is so hard on marriage today,” says Daly, “is because it reflects God’s image of humanity – that we’re made in His image, male and female. But to create children together, we become one flesh. Paul says it’s a mystery. And I think it’s a great offense to the enemy of our souls.”
Strengthening the family – long a primary mission of Focus on the Family – remains unchanged, says Daly. “Research shows that today still the best place for the well-being of children is in their biological mom and dad’s home. There’s no other family unit that rivals it. Sure, no family’s perfect because it’s made up of imperfect people. But when a family is functioning well, there’s love in the home and those children are going to do well.”
Daly speaks from experience. He’s the youngest of five children born to alcoholic parents. He ended up in foster care system after his stepfather walked out during his mother’s funeral. What followed were hellish years during which his mentally ill foster father accused young Daly of trying to kill him. The boy’s biological father, who had walked out when Daly was 5, returned to rescue him from a nightmare, but after a year fell back into alcohol abuse and committed suicide.
“I come from a broken childhood. I have a driving passion to try to get every child a better home and to be an advocate for that child who has no home.”
He was on his own at 17, but graduated from high school, then worked his way through college, earning a master’s degree in business administration. He was making a six-figure corporate salary when he responded to a divine call in 1989 and joined Focus on the Family, taking a two-thirds salary cut.
He’s seen the ministry slash staff, force its founder into retirement and now come under unrelenting attack for its defence of traditional marriage between one man and one woman. His response?
“I think what we want to do is be respectful, to speak with sincerity, to listen to what others have to say and follow simple rules of human interaction. Then we can do a far better job of being heard and being understood.
“We have to stay true to the tenants of the faith,” explains Daly. “But in doing so, we look to 2 Timothy 2:23.” In that passage, the Apostle Paul cautions young Timothy not to have anything to do with endless arguments. Paul also wrote to Timothy telling him that quarrels promote controversy rather than advancing God’s work – and that he should avoid people who have an unhealthy interest in ongoing controversy. “Warn them before God against quarrelling; it is of no value and only ruins those who listen,” he warned in 2 Timothy 2:14.
“When we are trying to help people understand spiritual truths, we need to do so with humility and graciousness,” says Daly. That’s why Focus on the Family, for example, shelved a program featuring the owner of Tom’s shoes – who donates a pair of shoes to the poor worldwide for every pair sold. After filming a special with Daly, Tom’s owner came under sharp attack by supporters of same-sex marriage who heatedly attacked Focus on the Family, equating it with Nazis, the Ku Klux Klan or worse. Overnight, Tom’s owner abruptly distanced himself from Focus on the Family.
It was embarrassing – and expensive for the ministry. The special had already been produced and was ready for broadcast. But Daly pulled it.
Doesn’t it hurt to be so viciously and unjustly attacked? How can an organization that stands for good be so fervidly accused of evil? Isaiah 5:20 warns: “Woe to those who call evil good, and good evil; Who substitute darkness for light and light for darkness; Who substitute bitter for sweet and sweet for bitter!”
But these are difficult times – and Christians are going to have adjust their presentation in order to be heard, he says. “We’ve focused a lot on righteousness and living righteously – and that is obviously important. But we have to look at God’s grace, too.
“Truth is important, but God’s love is critically important as well. It’s what opens ears and hearts. We have to remember that those who don’t agree with our faith, or our ideology or our religion are not the enemy. They are men and women, like us, created in the image of God and deserving our respect.”
And that’s the theme of his book. He says it’s time that Christians refocus – “looking at making sure we’re offering as much love to the culture as we are truth.
“You know, Jesus was accused of being a friend of sinners and really mixing it up with people who were of the world. That’s what the Pharisees didn’t like about Him, yet it’s the model that Jesus left for us. And it changed the world.”
Daly knows the frustration of spending precious time and dollars in the political arena, then having little results to show for it. With an annual budget approaching $100 million, Focus on the Family spent millions promoting Christian values in the last election. And now, he says, he finds himself thinking these days more about the big picture – the Great Commission, winning the world for Jesus – and less about political platforms.
“So often we expect the world to act like Christians. We’re very grace-filled toward the church acting like the world.” Daly says we must turn that around. “One way to do that is to live out our faith in front of the world in such a way that it glorifies God and brings honor to Him – in our marriages, our families and every area of our life.”
And perhaps it’s time to rethink politics and the church, he says.
“We can’t compromise our principles,” he says. “However, when we divide along party lines, it robs the discussion and the debate. We need to interact with others in a way that will consistently reveal the heart of God to a desperately hurting world. The moral issues of our day transcend the political debate.”
Christians often forget there’s a larger audience out there, he says. Just preaching to the faithful isn’t changing the world. “When we’re just talking to each other and patting each other on the back, we’re not making any progress. But if we engage those on the other side of the ideological spectrum to open up the discussion, to understand each other’s concerns more straight forwardly rather than in terms of caricature, that’s a helpful thing.”
He recalls an invitation he received to participate in a debate at a local college at the invitation of a religion and philosophy professor. He said he realized it was unwise to go into the debate “thinking in terms of score cards – of something I’ve got to win – that I’ve got to win the debate, I’ve got to win, I’ve got to triumph over this person’s ideology or position.
“What Jesus models and what the New Testament teaches is influence.”
He points to the early days of Christianity – the years of terrible persecution of Christians.
“Look at the early church,” says Daly. “The message then was convincing Rome that Christianity was a good thing, such as the way that Jesus elevated women, the way that the Christian community in the early first, second and third centuries developed hospitals and charities and orphanages.
“They did the things we call orthopraxy – the doing of the word. They did those things out of their love for Christ which benefited all. It was so shocking to the culture of that day. But it was Christians’ humanity that it caught their attention.”
The Romans found themselves asking, “Well, why do these Christians love the way they do? Why do they go and care for the downtrodden. Why do they reach out to the sick and contagious of Rome with no regard for their own well being? That puzzled the pagan Romans,” says Daly.
Should Christians just withdraw from the political arena?
“No, I don’t think that’s helpful to the culture,” he responds. “There are two camps – those who would withdraw from debate and instead plan with types of compromise or some kind of understanding.
“Then there are those who believe it’s all or nothing.
“I think the healthy place is right in the center. If we withdraw we’re doing ourselves and our culture a disservice.
“But there again is the difficult balance. How do you stay engaged, yet have emotional distance? The Word is very clear that this is temporal, this is man’s kingdom and that this will all be wrapped up in at some point in time.
“God’s kingdom is the eternal kingdom. Look at Jesus talking to Pontius Pilate or Paul talking to King Agrippa. There is such a calm peace and confidence in them. The attitude is ‘Before you kill me, can I pray for you? I know where I’m going after I die, but I don’t think you know where you’re going.’
“Today, we lack that because I think we’re putting an ordinate amount of trust in the political process. It will greatly disappoint us.
“We know that all fall short – we’re all sinners. I think that’s the biggest problem that our faith plays out in the political arena. We set up really a difficult paradigm – a self perception that we’re perfect and they’re not. That’s not true. We’re all broken people. That’s clear in scripture. We are all sinners saved by grace. Like Chuck Colson used to tell me, you don’t get angry at a blind man who steps on your foot.
“It’s true about spiritual blindness, such as the person who’s involved in the abortion industry. They believe they’re doing a good thing for humanity. They don’t see that from a Christian point view, they are taking human life.
“What compels me is to share the Gospel with people – even people who would disagree with me. I welcome the opportunity to open their eyes to the possibility that there is a God and that He cares for them. All I can tell you is what God has done in my life and what he has shown me – and what I have lived and what I read in the Scriptures. My enthusiasm is to share that with you.
“That’s what I’m worried about when you get right down to it. I’m worried about the barricade that’s impenetrable on either side.
“We don’t really want to engage them. We don’t want to talk with them.
“They don’t want to talk with us.
“That’s unfortunate, because the way hearts are changed is clear engagement.”
“The bigger question,” says Daly, “is the really difficult balance of ‘How do we participate in a democracy within the environment that we live in today?’ Scripture says time is winding down. We’re in the End Times. God wants us to have a Stephen-like attitude. Can we honestly say, ‘Don’t hold this sin against them’? How often do we say that after an argument or debate?
“We have to understand that we’re not here to win. We’re here to influence as much as possible the heart to the listener.
“It might be a little bit, it might be nothing, or it might be remarkable.
“The church and the claims of Christ and the Gospel are as relevant as they were 40 or 50 years ago. But I think younger Christians look at older Christians and think all we want to do is pound down someone’s throat the idea of righteousness.
“We need balance. When we strike it, standing for truth with Christ’s heart, all people are attracted to it, both young and old. I don’t think we should bend in principle.
“But we have to be mindful of the way in which we reach out and the tone with which we do it. If we’re simply politically partisan, we should just become conservative radio talk show hosts.
“The Lord calls us to something far more.
“He calls us to the transcendent values found in the Bible.
“That’s a vision worth refocusing on.”
It’s a passion project.
The new 10-hour mini-series The Bible is “a story of enduring love,” says Mark Burnett, producer of TV mega-hits Survivor (CBS), The Voice (NBC), The Celebrity Apprentice (NBC), and Shark Tank (ABC). “It’s many, many stories that have endured over thousands of years. It’s how God has used many flawed characters and doesn’t give up on them.”
But the History Channel’s upcoming Easter presentation is also a labor of love, a long-planned first-time co-production by Burnett and his wife Roma Downey – best known for her nine seasons as Touched by an Angel star Monica.
Their mission? To bring the Bible to generations who may not know the stories told and re-told so many times over the centuries, says Burnett.
For six long, hot, dusty months, the couple shot the docudrama on location in the Sahara Desert with an international cast of over 400 actors.
Premiering Sunday, March 3, the project spans Genesis through Revelation, presenting more than 30 beloved Bible stories from Adam and Eve to John’s Vision of the Apocalypse, from Noah’s Ark through Jesus’ life. The final segment, scheduled for Easter Sunday, includes Christ’s Last Supper, Betrayal, Crucifixion and Resurrection – with Downey playing Mary, the mother of Christ.
“We only had ten hours,” sighs Downey, “and we wished we could have had more and we could have told more. There were two ways to handle it. Either we could go through more stories, but tell them more quickly, or we could tell fewer stories and have an opportunity to go deeper into them – in the hope that we could engage the audience more emotionally with a deeper experience, inviting them to walk in the shoes of these wonderful, historic characters.
“That’s what we ended up doing,” she says. “In 10 hours, we knew we couldn’t do a Bible series and not tell the story of Abraham or Moses or David. One of the episodes that was of the most importance to us bridges from the Old Testament to the New Testament.”
“We did that through the story of Daniel in the Lion’s Den, which, of course, tells how the conquering Persian king saw without a doubt that Daniel’s God is the only true God – and releases the Jewish people from their exile, allowing them to go back from Babylon to Jerusalem.
“There’s great celebration, but Daniel’s prophecy is such that he knows that the worst is yet to come – and we fire forward showing the clash of shields and marching of feet of the Roman Empire as we find ourselves in Galilee during the hard times, that oppressed era the Savior chose to dwell among men.”
Were there times when Burnett and Downey wondered why they took on such a massive undertaking?
“Oh, there were tough days obviously, but we never really wondered why we were doing it. It’s a project we’ve wanted to do for a long time,” says Burnett. “We love the Bible and, you know, when you have a couple of hundred people in a difficult location like the edge of the Sahara desert, anything can get difficult.
“We had a good sense of humor and we surrounded ourselves with an incredible film crew, a special kind of people. They’re problems solvers, not problem creators or complainers. That was the key, surrounding ourselves with the right kind of people to take on such an important project as this which means so much to both Monica and me.
“Nothing was that hard when you look back on it,” he said. “If you asked the same question maybe a year ago on the wrong day, when we were exhausted and we were thinking ‘Oh, wow, this is so tough–’”
“It was a little bit like carrying a baby,” interjects Downey. “I think after the point of delivery, most women forget how uncomfortable their pregnancies were and so, here we are on the eve of delivery and we are just so grateful for the experience of making this series together, co-producing as a husband and wife team.
“It really deepened our friendship and strengthened our marriage.
“You know,” she says with a smile, “there were moments during it I’m sure where we felt we might never speak to each other again. It was highly pressured and very hard work. It was hard to be gone from home for so long. We were in Morocco from February to July, but we felt called to do this.”
“We shot in Morocco,” says Mark, “because our hope was to achieve an epic, big scale, quality production that would present the grand narrative of the Bible while at the same time allow opportunities for intimate storytelling – so that we could really make the emotional connection with our audience.”
“We know as movie makers that this sort of storytelling begins in the heart,” says Roma. “When your heart opens up, that’s the opportunity for grace to move in.”
This series is far more than just entertainment, say the couple.
“I believe that people will be able to go back to the Scripture with these images in their minds and be able to engage God’s Word in a whole new and exciting way,” says Downey.
Wasn’t telling Bible stories an abrupt change of direction for Burnett? Is it a recent thing that he would tackle a project focusing on the Holy Scriptures?
“This project certainly deepened my faith immensely,” he says. “I mean, anybody who spends three and a half years working on telling the story of the Bible cannot help but be touched.”
But a personal faith isn’t something new to him, he says. “I grew up in a wonderful home with a Scottish Presbyterian mother and a Scottish Catholic father. It wasn’t until I was in my 20s probably in America that I realized there is a difference between Catholics and Protestants.
“That was a great way to grow up – with tolerance for each other.”
Given his success with reality TV, wasn’t this a major challenge professionally?
“Oh, yes,” he chuckles. “I mean it was my first time working with actors so closely.”
It was also his first time directing his wife.
“I didn’t go over to Morocco with the intention of playing any part,” recalls Downey. “We ended up you know, trying to cast the role of Mary while we were over there and Mark urged me to step into the role after we didn’t find who we believed was the right actor for Jesus’ mother. That was a great privilege for me, an unexpected privilege to step into that role, to experience those things through a mother’s heart and to see them through a mother’s eyes.”
Burnett, on the other hand, does not appear on screen.
“At one point,” Roma remembers, “I tried to throw him in to play a farmer, but he resisted. So, don’t scan the crowds and try to find him amid the multitudes. He stayed behind the camera.”
“I remember, here I was in Morocco sitting on a little craggy piece of rock in the middle of the Sahara Desert, longing for some shade and finding it,” recalls Downey. “We would gather around with these actors who would express such touching sentiments about how much this project meant to them.
“So many times as an actor, you wish you could have access to the screenwriter, to ask, ‘What did you mean here? What are we trying to do with this scene?’ So, I would reach into my little dusty backpack and just happen to have my Bible.
“It was extraordinary to open it up and see exactly what the scene was all about.
“And it was the most extraordinary, wonderful thing when the actors allowed me to pray with them.
“Many of the crew were deeply affected,” recalls Burnett. “It was a wonderful challenge, studying the Scriptures and thinking ‘How do we tell this? How do we present that?’ and trying to be creative and be true to something that means so much to us.
“In the end,” he says, “what we’ve done is a meta-narrative, a grand narrative of emotionally connected stories.
“Roma and I know we’re not qualified to teach the Bible. But we’re qualified to be good television producers and storytellers.
“By telling these emotionally connected, big stories, hopefully millions of people will reopen their Bibles.”
“And be touched,” agrees Roma, smiling like the angel we all remember so well.
It seems preposterous, but there’s a major debate over who is worthy to invoke the presence and blessing of the Almighty on the leaders of this land we love!
So, who is qualified to pray for the President of the United States?
Everybody and anybody, according to the Apostle Paul writing to young follower Timothy in what author Mark D. Roberts calls “one of the most commonly disobeyed verses in the Bible.”
“I urge you,” Paul told Timothy, “first of all, to pray for all people. Ask God to help them; intercede on their behalf, and give thanks for them. Pray this way for kings and all who are in authority” (1 Timothy 2:1-2).
“They were to do so even if that ruler was tyrannical, and even though they had no ability to influence the choice of ruler or the policies of the ruler,” writes Roberts.
In other words, even if a Christian detests the person in power, we are supposed to pray for him or her anyway.
And there’s nothing in the Bible about clergy being the only ones who can lift up our leaders to the Almighty. So, President Barack Obama was well within Bible guidelines when he broke historic precedent on the eve of his second inauguration. He selected the first layperson ever, Mrs. Myrlie Evers-Williams, the widow of slain civil rights activist Medgar Evers, to offer the benediction.
In the past, that honor has been reserved for men of the cloth. No woman has ever given an official prayer at an inauguration. In 1937, the first recorded time that a clergyman opened the inauguration, the invocation or opening call for God to help and be present was given by the Chaplain of the U.S. Senate, Episcopal Clergyman ZeBarney Thorne Phillips.
The benediction or closing prayer asking God’s blessing on the departing officials and crowd was given by Catholic priest John A. Ryan, a professor at the Catholic University of America.
This year, the benediction was going to be Continued on Page Two
Should a Hindu foundation be allowed to finance yoga instruction in California grade schools – despite vehement parental objections? Should a student production featuring cross-dressing and gender confusion go ahead in Utah despite protests from furious parents?
Should Massachusetts teens be subjected to school assemblies in which homosexual practices are described in detail by a gay-rights group – even after parents have battled and lost in court for their rights to pull their own children out of such sessions?
Parents have a right, say New Hampshire state legislators. Parents have no rights, says a federal judge.
In fact, there seems to be a new battle shaping up as the federal courts increasingly rule against parental rights while state legislatures seem determined to give parents a choice over what their child is taught.New York’s legislature allows parents “to opt their children out of sex education classes,” writes K.J. Dell’Antonia in the New York Times. “Texas allows for the exception of students from any class or activity that ‘conflicts with a parent’s religious or moral beliefs.’ Meanwhile, New Hampshire’s law is the most far-reaching, permitting parents “to have their children opt out of anything from the teaching of evolution to the teaching of phonics.”
It was yoga that had Encinitas, California, parents up in arms.
“Should yoga sessions in public schools be subject to the same restrictions as religious ceremonies?” asks the North County Times newspaper. “A group of 60 Southern California parents thinks so – they want to pull yoga out of their school district’s curriculum.
“The yoga controversy is the latest twist on the contentious issue of anything having to do with religion in schools funded by taxpayer dollars,” notes Scott Bomboy of the National Constitution Center. “In this case, a lawyer for the parents says yoga has ties to Hinduism and that there is no place for it in the Encinitas Union School District.
“There’s a deep concern that the Encinitas Union School District is using taxpayer resources to promote Ashtanga yoga and Hinduism, a religion system of beliefs and practices,” the parents’ attorney, Dean Broyles, told the Times.
At issue was a $533,000 grant from the Jois Foundation, founded by the late Sri K. Pattabhi Jois, who according to the Jois website “spent his entire life dedicated to the study, practice, and transmission of Ashtanga Yoga, and was known affectionately by his many students simply as Guruji.” The website goes on to describe Jois as born in India and “studying the Vedas and Hindu rituals at the age of five.
Broyles told ABC News that the Ashtanga yoga being taught Encinitas kids is offensive. “The poses and positions are acknowledged by Ashtanga and Hindi yoga as forms of worship and prayers to Hindu deities. They have a spiritual and religious meaning behind them. It would be like a charismatic Christian organization funding classes in worship and praise.”
In another case in Utah, parents were upset that the local high school’s modernized version of Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night included cross-dressing and a same-gender kiss.
In Massachusetts, U.S. District Judge Mark L. Wolf dismissed a civil rights lawsuit brought by parents David and Tonia Parker and Joseph and Robin Wirthlin, who had objected to their children being taught to accept and endorse homosexuality, reports Bob Unruh. Wolf ruled that the Christian youngsters need the teachings to be “engaged and productive citizens.” He ruled that it was unconstitutional to uphold “the rights of religious freedom and parental control over the upbringing of children.”
Doing so, he argued, “would undermine teaching and learning” in class.
“Wolf’s ruling is every parent’s nightmare,” says the pro-family group Mass Resistance. “Wolf makes the absurd claim that normalizing homosexuality to young children is ‘reasonably related to the goals of preparing students to become engaged and productive citizens in our democracy.’
“In addition, Wolf makes the odious statement that the Parkers’ only options are (1) send their kids to a private school, (2) home-school their kids, or (3) elect a majority of people to the School Committee who agree with them. Can you imagine a federal judge in the Civil Rights era telling blacks the same thing – that if they can’t be served at a lunch counter they should just start their own restaurant, or elect a city council to pass laws that reflect the U.S. Constitution?” the organization said.
The judge concluded that even allowing Christians to withdraw their children from classes or portions of classes where their religious beliefs were being violated wasn’t a reasonable expectation.
“An exodus from class when issues of homosexuality or same-sex marriage are to be discussed could send the message that gays, lesbians, and the children of same-sex parents are inferior and, therefore, have a damaging effect on those students,” he said in his opinion. “Diversity is a hallmark of our nation. It is increasingly evident that our diversity includes differences in sexual orientation.”
In a sharp contrast to his ruling, the legislature in neighboring New Hampshire overrode their governor’s veto to enact a new law allowing parents to object to any part of their child’s school curriculum, reported John Celock, in the Huffington Post. The state House voted 255-112 and Senate 17-5 to enact H.B. 542, which allowing parents to request an alternative school curriculum for any subject to which they register an objection. Gov. John Lynch vetoed the measure, saying the bill would harm education quality and give parents control over lesson plans.
Exactly, said legislators, proclaiming that parents should have the last say.
Under the terms of the new law, which was sponsored by state Rep. J.R. Hoell (R-Dunbarton), a parent can object to any curriculum or course material in the classroom. The parent and school district then determine a new curriculum or texts for the child to meet any state educational requirements for the subject matter. The bill also allows for the parent’s name and reason for objection to be sealed – not made public – by the state.
And so the tug-of-war seems to be shaping up. Consistently, federal courts are ruling that parents have no rights, whereas the state legislatures are specifically giving parents those rights.
“While parents may want extensive curriculum opt-out rights, federal case law makes it clear that parents have no constitutional right to excuse their children from any part of public school curricula, even if the parents’ objection is based on religious or moral grounds,” writes Dr. Tommy Kevin Rogers at the University of North Texas. “Nonetheless, parents continue to express increasing concern and sensitivity about public school curricula, particularly sex education.
Rogers cites the 1995 case of In Brown v. Hot, Sexy, & Safer Productions, Inc., “which dealt with alleged sexually offensive remarks made at a high school AIDS assembly.” In that session, actual techniques for performing homosexual sex acts were described in detail to youngsters. When parents were furious, the First Circuit Court of Appeals stated they do not possess “a fundamental constitutional right to dictate the curriculum at the public school.”
Almost in response, noted Dr. Rogers, “many states have recognized the importance of parental rights in education and the sensitivity to curricula such as sex education. As a result, many states provide statutory rights allowing parents to opt-out of all or part of courses such as sex education and family life education.
“Eight states are even more parent-friendly by prohibiting public schools from teaching sex education to children unless the parents opt-in.
“A few states, such as New York and Ohio, provide some distinctive opt-out statutes. For instance, in New York, a parent may only opt-out of instruction that covers the prevention of AIDS. In Ohio, there are statutory rights given to parents for opt-outs from courses not seen in other states such as CPR, and personal safety and assault prevention. The procedural process is uniform with 31 states specifically requiring a written parent note in their opt-out statutes.
“Eighteen states give authority to the local education agency to develop the procedure for curriculum opt-outs.
“Texas may have the most permissive curriculum opt-out statute in the U.S. Since the adoption of the statute in 1995, there has been no published litigation over opt-outs in Texas. The conclusion can be made that the implementation of the statute has not been a problem for Texas public schools. In fact, having such a permissive law may actually be helpful to school authorities when they are confronted by parents objecting to some curricular element, whether sex education, evolution, HIV/AIDS instruction, animal dissection, the celebration of Halloween, etc.
“In my opinion,” writes Rogers, “as a Texas administrator for the past 13 years, opt-out and opt-in statutes are extremely helpful from a policy standpoint. Parents are a critical part of the educational process, and it is important, within limits, to value their input into curricular decisions in public schools, or in other words, to be parent-friendly.”
“Clearly, the strategic development of opt-out statutes and regulations by state legislatures and state education departments must maintain the integrity of curricular requirements while balancing the sincere beliefs of parents with religious or moral objections.
“The ultimate motivation of public educators is to serve the public good, ensuring the product they offer is of the highest quality and providing that product to as many children as possible within constitutional constraints from individual states.”
“Most educators genuinely work for the best interests of their students and community. Parents, more than anyone else, have a sincere, vested interest in the education of their children. Both public school administrators and parents must work together to maintain a beneficial balance to sustain a democratic society. I conclude that curriculum opt-outs, within reasonable limits, provide benefits for both educators and parents.”
“A recent plan by President Obama to address students nationwide via the Internet energized the debate over what rights parents have once their children enter a public school setting,” noted Rogers. “Airing the speech to school children created great opposition among some parents across the United States.
“The uproar over the speech was widespread, but in many states where school districts were under pressure from parents, plans were developed to let parents opt-out their children from viewing the speech.
“Some public school districts refused to allow students to watch the speech, while others welcomed the opportunity for students to hear the president.
“Independence, Missouri’s school district superintendent Jim Hinson received ‘more calls than we’ve ever had on an issue,’” reported Rogers. “Hinson confirmed that the speech would not be shown in elementary schools, but individual teachers in upper grade levels could decide whether students should hear President Obama’s speech.”
In Florida, “Sarasota County School District administrators gave permission for teachers to show the speech if it fit into the curriculum, but allowed parents to decide whether to opt-out their children.
“Wellesley, Massachusetts superintendent Bella Wong allowed teachers to make decisions on a class-by-class basis.
“In Arizona, multiple options were used by school districts’ officials. For Mesa’s public schools, parents could opt-out for their children only if they contacted the school first, the same policy used for other situations in which parents desired to shield their children from a particular part of school curricula. Other Arizona districts, such as Tempe School District and Prescott Unified School District, demonstrated opposite ends of the dilemma.
“Tempe officials required all students to watch the president’s speech with no opt-out provision while Prescott’s officials did not show the speech to any students (Parker, 2009).
“In Texas, Ector and Midland County Independent School District officials allowed the broadcast to be available to all campuses and teachers, but it was not required viewing. The communications officer in Midland Independent School District stated, ‘It’s an educational opportunity and we will make educational opportunities available to our students. We’re not saying everybody has to stop doing what they’re doing though.’”
Nationwide, 26 states now allow parents to opt out of classes without stating a reason. The District of Columbia and 17 states require parents to cite religious or ethical objections before they can pull their child out of class. Seven states have no statutes covering the issue, but three of those – Nebraska, South Dakota and North Dakota – said that parental rights are traditionally observed.
Will parental rights be the next battleground? As state legislatures and the federal courts appear to be squaring off, it should be interesting to see who wins.