Friday, May 06, 2005


I am a proud booster of my old High School and school system. I believe I was blessed to attend a stellar public school, with professional teachers, a supportive community, and, all things considered, an attentive and responsive administration. So I was sad to see Eugene Volokh performing a unfortunate, but well-deserved smackdown of Montgomery County Public Schools' teachings on homosexuality--an embarrassment made worse by the fact their hearts are in the right place.

In their "Myths and Facts" section, MCPS states the following:
Myth: Homosexuality is a sin.

Facts: The Bible contains six passages which condemn homosexual behavior. The Bible also contains numerous passages condemning heterosexual behavior. Theologians and Biblical scholars continue to differ on many Biblical interpretations. They agree on one thing, however. Jesus said absolutely nothing at all about homosexuality. Among the many things deemed an abomination are adultery, incest, wearing clothing made from more than one kind of fiber, and earing [sic] shellfish, like shrimp and lobster.

Religion has often been misused to justify hatred and oppression. Less than a half a century ago, Baptist churches (among others) in this country defended racial segregation on the basis that it was condoned by the Bible. Early Christians were not hostile to homosexuals. Intolerance became the dominant attitude only after the Twelfth Century. Today, many people no longer tolerate generalizations about homosexuality as pathology or sin. Few would condemn heterosexuality as immoral — despite the high incidence of rape, incest, child abuse, adultery, family violence, promiscuity, and venereal disease among heterosexuals. Fortunately, many within organized religions are beginning to address the homophobia of the church. The Nation Council of Churches of Christ, the Union of American Hebrew Congregations, the Unitarian Universalist Association, the Society of Friends (Quakers), and the Universal Fellowship of Metropolitan Community Churches support full civil rights for gay men and lesbians, as they do for everyone else.

Volokh rightly blasts this as a blatant violation of the Establishment clause. It asserts a theological viewpoint of what is and is not "sin" (clearly a religious term). Not only that, but it defines "sin" in explicitly Judeo-Christian terms (Jesus didn't care, the Torah also speaks out against other things we don't consider immoral). This implicitly accepts the Christian worldview as valid and authoritative(I wouldn't say so much Judeo-Christian, since "sin" is pretty much Christian terminology), precisely what the Establishment Clause is supposed to foreclose.

There are factual accuracies present in the passage (churches defended racial segregation, religion has been a source of violence and bigotry in the past), but Volokh is correct that the overall tone of the piece makes it seem like that information is given not for the purpose of historical illumination but rather to elevate some churches and discredit others.

One thing I am curious about is what do you do when the question comes up. Montgomery County is a pretty progressive place, but there are still plenty of conservative enclaves, especially upcounty (and certainly there a conservative Christians even in liberal locations). So it is at least somewhat predictable that, in response to a general curriculum advocating tolerant attitudes toward homosexuals, someone will pop the question: "is homosexuality immoral," or worse yet, "doesn't the bible teach us that homosexuality is immoral."

This would put a teacher in a very awkward situation. She has several potential responses, none of them good. She could follow an outline much like the above curriculum recommends. This would probably be an Establishment clause violation. She could give a wishy-washy half-answer, like "religions view this matter differently. You should talk to your pastor, priest, rabbi, or other spiritual leader about it." That's problematic because it undermines the rest of the course material--it now shifts the terms of debate into a morally relativistic "choice" (ironically enough, exactly what the Christian right loves to condemn!). Or the teacher could refuse to answer, a response I think all agree is unsatisfying to anyone.

Volokh's other objections to the curriculum are less troubling to me, however. He writes:
The curriculum contains at least one factual error, and quite possibly others (though as to the others the matter is more complex). The curriculum says that "a significant percentage of the population is gay, lesbian or bisexual (Approximately 1 in 10)." Earlier, the curriculum makes clear that it treats whether "a person is a homosexual" as a matter of what constitutes his "long-term sexual orientation," not whether someone has had at least one same-sex attraction or experience. Under that definition, the best evidence is that the about 2-3% of all U.S. residents are homosexual; the number might be somewhat different in Canada, but I suspect not vastly. The 10% estimate has long been discredited.

I am no expert on the matter, but I am wary of the 2-3% figure. First of all, if its based off self-reported identification, then it most likely underestimates the proportion of homosexuals wildly. Second, if sexuality is a continuum, then where we draw the line "homosexuality starts here" is very important. If I hear that 3% of Americans are homosexual, I immediately think that 97% are heterosexual (maybe slightly less accounting for bisexuals). If homosexuality is an 80 and up on a 100 point scale, that implies that 0-79 are heterosexual. However, if we hold both sides to the same standard, 0-20 is "heterosexual" and "21-79" is...something else. Furthermore, I suspect if the statistic was rephrased to "how many Americans are not heterosexual," the percentage would rise dramatically. Perfect example of how to lie with statistics.

Least persuasive of all is Volokh's war against using "experts" as "fact"
Moreover, consider this item: "Myth: If you are 'straight,' you can become a homosexual." "Fact: Most experts in the field have concluded that sexual orientation is not a choice." That "most experts" conclude something doesn't make it a fact; one would think that the fact that some experts conclude the opposite should be occasion for students to express some doubt and healthy skepticism, but the curriculum tells them that, no, most experts say it, so it's a fact.

At some point, the school system has to make a reasoned judgment about what the facts are. In theory, the question about whether sexual orientation is a choice is a biological and psychological one, it should be measurable. We can say the same thing about whether gays make good parents, or whether they are predisposed to immoral sexual conduct (outside the circular argument that homosexuality is immoral in of itself). When the overwhelming majority of professionals conclude a truth in science, we should give it considerable weight--especially given that a) the "opposing" scientists almost exclusively come at the topic with an agenda and b) nobody has ever shown any scientific evidence to refute the claims (even Professor Wardle's broad critique of the pro-equality studies is mostly an objection to methodology, it does not provide much in the way of counter-examples that show homosexuals are unfit or otherwise inferior). A good parallel might be creationism, sure, we can find scientists who support it, but the vast body of scientific literature runs against them (and find me a non-Christian creationist, anyway!). In an ideal world, sure, we might like to present every viewpoint exhaustively. But schools have a limited time to work with, it is reasonable for them to conclude that scientific conclusions agreed upon by everybody but an adamant sect of religiously motivated stalwarts should be taught as "factual." As Joseph R. Alsop put it, "A man who has bought a theory will fight a furious rear guard action against the facts."

I agree that in general, the entire curriculum is poorly worded, (frankly, the amount of "sics" the court opinion which sparked Volokh's post had to place in its block quotes is embarrassing) and should be totally overhauled. One could even make a persuasive case that an expert opinion, even when based on scientific evidence, shouldn't as a semantical matter be labeled a "fact" (much like the theory of evolution). I don't really object to that as long as the evidence is still presented as authoritative. MCPS should probably steer clear of "morality" talk altogether: a "model" curriculum would restrict itself to medical facts (homosexuality is natural, not a choice, and not in any way disabling or a "sickness"), sociological facts (homosexuals can make fine parents, are not more likely to abuse children etc etc), and generally accepted bromides about tolerance and equality (regardless of your private moral views, it is inappropriate and wrong to single out certain groups for moral condemnation based on false stereotypes). But what I will defend is MCPS' right to defend the dignity and legitimacy of homosexuality and homosexual persons--much as they do with racial minorities, women, and minority religions. This may present a value judgment--white supremacists may be upset that black people are presented as equals to their child (and they could even furnish "studies" to back up the objection!)--but it is clearly within the realm of a legitimate educational activity. If this represents a "value-judgment," so be it (it certainly isn't any more of a "value-judgment" than the "pillars of ethics" in my Middle School which told me to be respectful and empathetic, among other things).

As to the proper judicial resolution of this case, I would strike down the portions that deal directly with theology and religious condemnation, uphold the medical and sociological facts on homosexuality, and turn a careful eye on the parts dealing with "morality" (which borderline skirts on religion anyway).

UPDATE: I'm a bit surprised by the onesided coverage here. Yes, the religious messages in the MCPS curriculum are idiotic, and deserve to be labeled as such. But I would have hoped that The Moderate Voice, at least, would have taken the time to note that the vast majority of the curriculum is perfectly fine--and a lot of the "parent objections" are completely ridiculous. Instead, we hear skepticism about whether or not Montgomery County is "actually" liberal, a question which could be answered simply by looking at the voting stats (hint: when Democratic candidates start breaking 70%, we can safely call the place liberal).


Macrina said...

I am very late on this, of course, but I only came across this tonight. And given that yours isn't the only blog to bring it up, I'm not sure I should be commenting here, but I want to get this out of my brain so I can go to bed.

I'm a graduate student in early Christianity, and I found this quote from the MCPS curriculum curious/disturbing:

"Early Christians were not hostile to homosexuals. Intolerance became the dominant attitude only after the Twelfth Century."

A couple of problems:

1. The first sentence is untrue, or at least very disingenuous. At the very least, you'd think "early Christians" would include Paul, who is responsible for most of those six passages in the Bible condemning homosexuality, to say nothing of other early Christians, who certainly didn't approve of it when they brought it up (admittedly not very often).

2. People didn't identify as "homosexuals" in the sense we think of it today--people engaged in homosexual acts but didn't describe themselves as "homosexual" (as opposed to heterosexual). That's why there's so much debate about the Greek word in Paul that we translate as "homosexual," because whatever it means (passive partner in male homosexual intercourse? temple prostitute?), it doesn't mean what the word means to us.

3. The statement "intolerance became the attitude only after the Twelfth Century" is straight-up John Boswell. Now that's fine if you think his research should be universally accepted, which it isn't, and I question the qualifications of anyone who would present one side of a debate as fact when scholars who have PhDs in this stuff (which I assume whoever wrote this doesn't) are still arguing about it. I get the impression someone who really doesn't know what they're talking about picked up Christianity, Social Tolerance, and Homosexuality at a bookstore one day because it looked interesting, read it, thought, "Hey, this is great!" and wrote it into their curriculum without consulting, say, a religious studies scholar. Or maybe they consulted one they agree with. Who knows? Anyway, nobody asked me, obviously.

4. What about the idea that a pure, original Christianity existed back in the good ol' days before Constantine/the Catholic Church/choose your poison ruined it at some point? Who says that an evolved religion is worse than its original form? (Well, ironically, a lot of conservative Christians who themselves look to the primitive church to endorse their own views.)

I also don't like this sequence of sentences: "Jesus said absolutely nothing at all about homosexuality. Among the many things deemed an abomination are adultery, incest, wearing clothing made from more than one kind of fiber, and earing [sic] shellfish, like shrimp and lobster." Aside from the spelling error, this is why you should never, ever use passive voice when active would do (and teachers should know this!). Is it Jesus who deems these things an abomination? Because certainly he said nothing about shellfish, either. And do they mean to equate the sinfulness of adultery and incest (which most people agree are abominable, or at least not nice) with eating at Red Lobster? Because if they don't mean that--as I'm sure they don't--they need to get into an entirely different discussion of why eating shellfish might be sinful to Jews but not to Christians (which means distinguishing between different books of the Bible and not treating it as a homogenous text), and what it means to consider yourself a people chosen by God, set apart by certain behaviors, or there's no point bringing it up at all.

When my husband read this passage to me tonight, it was seriously the first time I ever considered homeschooling. Not because I don't want anyone teaching our children (if we have them) to tolerate homosexuals--they should--but because I don't want people who don't know what they're talking about telling them things that are wrong. This is the most simplistic, dopey attempt to make sense of a thorny issue I've seen in a long time. I want our kids to learn how to think harder than these people evidently did.

David Schraub said...

Thank you for your comments. I'm certainly not a religious scholar, and to the extent that I know about theology my "speciality," such as it is, would be in contemporary Judaic Studies. But I'm inclined to believe you are right--the theological portion of the curriculum, aside from the sheer idiocy of including that sort of thing in public schools, struck me as very suspicious to begin with.

However, if you do happen to reside in Mongomery County, I would hope you would reconsider your decision to homeschool. Occassional cluelessness of the school board notwithstanding, the actual education MCPS is absolutely stellar. It got me into a top-tier college, and it regularly competes with and maintains top-quality students recruited by elite private schools. It is unfortunate that this story is shining the spotlight on MCPS, because in normal circumstances I consider it a model of what public schooling can be.