Sex education repeal proposal gets support from both sides of aisle
by Tim Lockette
tlockette@annistonstar.com
Mar 18, 2012 | 14434 views |  0 comments | 12 12 recommendations | email to a friend | print
Politically, Mary Sue McClurkin and Patricia Todd don’t have a lot in common. Todd, a Democratic state representative from Birmingham, is Alabama’s first openly gay state legislator. McClurkin, a Republican from Indian Springs, is a longtime member of the conservative group Eagle Forum.

Yet both women say they’d like to repeal the state’s law governing what public schools should teach students about sex.

“Sex education is best taught by the parents,” said McClurkin, who heads the House Education Policy Committee. “We should take out any state requirement to teach sex education.”

McClurkin said she may join with Todd to co-sponsor a bill that would undo Alabama’s current sex education law. The bill has yet to be introduced in the House, but Todd said she is circulating it among legislators and building support on both sides of the aisle.

“I don’t know that I want the state to mandate how our schools teach about sex,” Todd said, adding that decisions about the curriculum should be made by educators, not legislators.

The current sex-ed law, passed in 1992, lays out the content that must be taught in sex education programs. The law says they should emphasize that abstinence is “the only completely effective protection” against unwanted pregnancy and sexually transmitted disease and that “abstinence from sexual intercourse outside of lawful marriage is the expected social standard.”

The law also requires teachers to tell students — falsely — that gay sex is illegal.

‘Not an acceptable lifestyle’

Teachers must emphasize “that homosexuality is not a lifestyle acceptable to the general public and that homosexual conduct is a criminal offense,” the law states.

“I don’t know if anybody is actually teaching this, to be honest with you” Todd said. “But the fact that this is even in the law is an insult.”

Laws against consensual gay sex were struck down nationwide by the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2003 decision in the case Lawrence v. Texas. Even before 2003, it was unusual for consenting partners to face prosecution under Alabama’s sodomy laws.

“We never prosecuted it in Birmingham, but then, we had a lot more pressing issues,” said Don Cochran, a former Jefferson County prosecutor who now teaches criminal law at the Cumberland School of Law. “Even if there still is a crime on the books, it would be unenforceable after Lawrence.”

Despite the wording of the law, there’s no evidence that teachers are actually telling kids that gay sex is a crime.

“As far as I know, that law has not been observed,” said Calhoun County Schools Superintendent Joe Dyar.

A former science and health teacher, Dyar said he began teaching the county’s sex education curriculum in the early 1990s and never addressed the topic of homosexuality.

“We never addressed it, for or against,” he said.

Joan Frazier, superintendent of Anniston City Schools, said she didn’t think teachers were telling students homosexuality is illegal.

“We teach only what is in the Alabama Course of Study,” she said.

The Course of Study is a set of standards set forth by the state Education Department, and those standards include no mention of homosexuality being illegal.

The entire 1992 sex education law, however, is reprinted in an appendix to the Course of Study. Malissa Valdes, a spokeswoman for the Alabama Department of Education, said there’s no way of knowing whether schools are observing the letter of that law.

“We’re not in the classroom every day, so we don’t know how the Course of Study is implemented everywhere,” she said.

Uneven teaching

In February, Todd proposed a bill that would erase the homosexuality-is-illegal wording from the law.

“‘Not an acceptable lifestyle,’” Todd said. “What the heck does that mean? It’s like they’re trying to say we shouldn’t exist.”

Todd said she knows that bill won’t pass. But when she proposed eliminating the sex-ed law entirely, she said, she found support from conservatives like McClurkin.

Both sides see something to gain in the change. For McClurkin, the elimination of state requirements would free local districts to teach sex education as they see fit — or not at all, if district leaders wish. McClurkin acknowledged that she wouldn’t want any district to teach that homosexuality and heterosexuality are morally equivalent, but she said that’s unlikely to happen in most Alabama districts. She said the state places too many mandates on teachers.

“There’s a long list of things we require from them,” McClurkin said. “And sex education is one topic that’s best taught in the home.”

Todd, who has spent much of her career working in AIDS outreach, said she doesn’t want to eliminate sex education entirely from students’ lives. Still, she said, sex education in Alabama schools already seems to be done very unevenly.

“In some places it’s taught in science class, in other places it’s done in health,” she said. “In some places it’s taught by the basketball coach and in some places the kids aren’t getting anything.”

And if followed to the letter, she said, the current law would have educators teaching something that is false.

“I’m just telling them they shouldn’t be teaching things that are incorrect,” Todd said.

Eagle Forum, a group headed by conservative activist Phyllis Schlafly, was a key proponent of the sex education law when it was passed in 1992. McClurkin told The Star she has long been a member of the group. Attempts to reach Brooklyn Roberts, Eagle Forum’s executive director for Alabama, were not successful Friday afternoon.

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