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Ryan Valentine serves as the Deputy Director for the Texas Freedom Network, a nonpartisan organization of religious and community leaders who advocate a mainstream agenda of religious freedom and individual liberties.
The only thing more controversial than teaching about sex in public schools is teaching about religion and sex. Most teachers and administrators don’t have to be told this. They wisely stick to the biological and scientific aspects of sexuality education in the classroom, while leaving moral and religious guidance to parents.
Except in Texas.
According to a new study of sex education materials used in Texas public school classes, almost ten percent of Texas school districts mix inappropriate religious content in their sexuality education instruction. Not surprisingly, the particular expression of religion that dominates in Texas secondary schools is Christianity, primarily beliefs held in fundamentalist Protestant traditions. Some of this content is explicitly and pervasively religious in nature, like a program used in three districts, whose Web site states:
We can be born again of The Almighty Himself. We then take on His character with all of its resultant self-control, benefits, and great responsibility. You will be amazed when the “sperm” of His Spirit connects with the “ovum/egg” of your spirit and you become a “new person” with His character. How? Read about it in your Bible.
Other materials provide a strict religious test for dating, telling students that they cannot date anyone who is not a Christian. A student handout from a Central Texas district provides an example of this type of religious discrimination:
For a Christian, this is the time where he or she would find out if their potential marriage partner is also a believer in Christ. The Bible warns us that believers and unbelievers should not team up, because those living in the light (of Christ) and those living in darkness cannot live in harmony. (2 Corinthians 6:14-15)
Another district provides students with a handout entitled “Things to look for in a mate.” First on the list: How they relate to God. Is Jesus their first love? Trying to impress people or serve God?
Of course, moral guidelines like these are a part of many religious traditions and perfectly appropriate to discuss in homes and houses of worship. Imposing a religious test for dating becomes problematic, however, when it is taught in a public school setting to students who come from a variety faith backgrounds (or none at all). One can easily imagine the problems the question “Is Jesus their first love?” poses for Jewish, Muslim or Hindu students sitting in a Texas classroom.
And it is not just the theology that is questionable; these faith-based programs also have trouble with medical facts. One unapologetically Christian abstinence-only program gives this bizarre advice to students: If a woman is dry, the sperm will die. If a woman is wet, a baby she may get!
Unconstitutional religious instruction is just one of the myriad problems with abstinence-only classroom materials. Students in Texas regularly encounter factual errors intended to discourage the use of contraceptives, as well as other mistruths, distortions and stereotypes about gender and sexual orientation. The report “Just Say Don’t Know: Sexuality Education in Texas Public Schools” – sponsored by the religious liberties watchdog group Texas Freedom Network – is available at www.JustSayDontKnow.org.
Though this study documents problems in Texas classrooms, those in other states shouldn’t be too smug. Given the federal government’s huge investment in abstinence-only education over the last decade, these same materials may already be in a public school classroom near you.
(If you are interested in ending funding for programs like these – and supporting more responsible approaches to sexuality education for young people – consider signing on to the Religious Institute on Sexual Morality, Justice, and Healing’s “Open Letter to Religious Leaders about Sex Education”