Local

Dismissed lawsuit increases attention on parental rights

byGail Besse Special to The Pilot
3/16/2007

David Parker of Lexington, Mass., second from left, speaks during a news conference in Boston, April 27, 2006 following filing a federal lawsuit claiming school administrators violated their civil rights and broke state law when they distributed and read two storybooks that depict gay relationships to their children without prior notification. His wife Tonia, right, Joseph Wirthlin, second from left, and his wife Robin, left, look on. AP File Photo/Chitose Suzuki

LEXINGTON -- National attention has increased on a case involving parental rights being trumped by public school policies since a federal judge Feb. 23 dismissed a lawsuit brought by two Lexington couples.

The case highlights how gay activists have made inroads within some Massachusetts public schools, even before the state Supreme Judicial Court paved the way in 2004 for same-sex marriage licenses.

David and Tonia Parker and Joseph and Robin Worthlin filed a constitutional lawsuit in 2006 against Lexington Public School officials. The Christian parents objected that their kindergarten and second-grade children were exposed without the parents prior knowledge to books designed to mainstream same-sex unions.

They argued that because the children were so young, this amounted to indoctrination; it deprived the parents of their right to present this sensitive issue within the framework of their moral beliefs at an age-appropriate time.

Their request for prior notice to opt their children out of future discussions was denied by school officials, who later garnered support in their defense from the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), national gay advocacy groups, and the Massachusetts Teachers Association.

First District Court Judge Mark Wolf dismissed the parents suit, which has already cost them $250,000 in legal fees. Wolf ruled the school was promoting diversity and not teaching sex education. He further said that if parents disagreed with the curriculum, they could remove their children from public school or elect a different school board.

Public reaction was swift.

A Boston Globe editorial applauded the ruling: The decision Wolf issued yesterday is based on earlier court findings that parents do not have a constitutional right to dictate what their children are taught in the public schools.

Brian Camenker of the Waltham-based parents rights group Mass Resistance called Wolfs ruling every parents nightmare.

Weve received a lot of support from many people of different faiths, Tonia Parker said in a phone interview. A Baptist church in Texas adopted both the Parkers and Worthlins and the schoolchildren of Massachusetts in prayer.

Cardinal Sen P. OMalley, in his online blog March 2, encouraged the couples to pursue their appeal, which was filed Feb. 28. He wrote: The disturbing part of this affair is that it underscores how, by redefining marriage in Massachusetts, peoples religious rights are going to be challenged by the state. I think that people were very nave saying that we can change the definition of marriage and it will not have any repercussions and will not affect anyone elses marriage or society as a whole.

Asked to comment, Lexington Town Counsel Kevin Batt said, The school system has never meant any disrespect for religious views of parents, but does need to create an atmosphere of tolerance of diversity for children from all kinds of families.

David Parker said he has never been motivated to bring down anyones dignity. However, he said, Its a fundamental and sacred right of parents to be the primary directors of their childrens moral education. He thinks that point has been eroded incrementally. Its been a slow process where the boundary has crept over the years.

Seven years ago Lexington brought in LGBT (Lesbian Gay Bisexual Transgender) diversity trainers to show teachers how to integrate gay-friendly topics, according to a June 2006 article, Show and Tell, in Bay Windows, a Boston gay advocacy newspaper.

Some Massachusetts communities have similar practices. In one controversy publicized last fall, Emer OShea of Newton did finally remove her daughter from public school. The childs third-grade class learned about transvestites and transsexuals from a former board member of GLSEN, the Gay Lesbian and Straight Education Network, a group committed to raising awareness of and combating homophobia in the schools.

These kinds of problems are somewhat inevitable, given what the court in Massachusetts has done on gay marriage, said Professor Dwight Duncan of Southern New England School of Law in North Dartmouth. Parents should work to defend marriage and push for a stronger parental notification law, he said.

State-funded school advocacy programs got a boost from the Massachusetts Legislature when it quadrupled the 2007 budget to nearly $2 million for outreach to and support and safety of gay and lesbian students. Lawmakers also created a permanent Commission for Gay and Lesbian Youth, which has since independently added Bisexual and Transgender to its title, according to Mass Resistance.

Introducing transgenderism and homosexuality in the classroom is the goal of a newly formed educators coalition called the Massachusetts LGBT Early Childhood Education Initiative, Bay Windows reported.

The coalition formed in Cambridge last June after Wheelock College first offered Making Room in the Circle: Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Families in Early Childhood Settings (ages 3 to 5). The course challenges institutionalized oppression and heterosexual privilege.

Another tool kit for gender identity activism in schools available is Beyond the Binary, a publication of the Gay Straight Alliance Network aimed at transgender youth.

Some parents are afraid to speak up, concluded Jed Snyder, pastor of Countryside Bible Chapel in Lexington and a supporter of the Parkers and Worthlins. They hope to debrief their children at home.

A warning note was sounded March 2 in The Pilot. It editorialized on the lawsuits dismissal: If this disgraceful ruling prevails, the rights of parents to oversee their childrens education in public schools on issues related with sexuality will be severely diminished.