GREENBELT, Md. — A federal judge yesterday blocked Montgomery County public schools from instituting a new health curriculum that includes discussions of homosexuality and demonstrations on how to use condoms.
U.S. District Judge Alexander Williams issued a temporary restraining order that prevents the system from using a pilot program in six schools. The pilot was set to begin May 9.
School Superintendent Jerry D. Weast issued a statement last night saying he was suspending use of the curriculum for the rest of the school year and had ordered a review of its materials before deciding the future of the program.
"I have directed the office of the deputy superintendent of schools to review and evaluate the materials referenced in the judge's order and the other teacher resource materials associated with the health curriculum before any decisions are made about future pilot testing of the revised curriculum in our schools," Weast said.
Williams agreed with two groups that filed the lawsuit. The groups said the curriculum's discussion of homosexuality amounted to preference of one religion over the other because it backed the views of faiths that are tolerant of homosexuality over those that reject it.
For example, the curriculum juxtaposes faiths such as Quakers and Unitarians that support full rights for gays and lesbians with groups such as Baptists, who are painted as "intolerant and Biblically misguided," the judge wrote in his opinion.
"The court is extremely troubled by the willingness of the defendants to venture, or perhaps more correctly, bound, into the crossroads of controversy where religion, morality and homosexuality converge," Williams wrote.
The temporary restraining order lasts 10 days, during which time another hearing is to be held on whether it will be extended, according to the judge's decision.
Conservative groups hailed the decision, saying Williams is one of the few judges to back their belief that many sex-education programs favor the liberal views of particular faiths.
"Traditional morality is often kept out of the classroom," said Robert Knight, head of the Concerned Women for America's Culture and Family Institute. "But when some religious denominations appear to favor a liberal viewpoint, then it is used liberally in the schools."
The lawsuit was filed on May 3 by Citizens for a Responsible Curriculum, a county group composed mostly of parents, and the Virginia-based Parents and Friends of Ex-Gays and Gays. About 15 members cheered in the federal court clerk's office when William's decision was released.
"I don't think it is right that we have 13-year-olds learning to think whether they are gay or straight," said Laura Quigley, who has three children in the school system. "We just need to let them be kids."
Patricia O'Neill, president of the county school board that adopted the new curriculum in November, said she was disappointed about the judge's decision but that the schools would still pursue its case in court. She said she was distressed that the two groups waited so long to challenge the program.
"Our decision was made in November. The teacher training occurred in March. We are in the 11th hour. Obviously there was forethought in this group to file it to have a maximum impact," she said.
The new curriculum was to be used in 8th and 10th grades to teach students about the dangers of unprotected sex and about human sexuality. The county planned to use it in all schools after testing it this spring.
Previously, health teachers could only discuss homosexuality in response to questions. Under the new program, they can bring up the issue on their own. The curriculum for 10th-grade classes is to feature a seven-minute video that discusses abstinence and includes a segment where a woman puts a condom on a cucumber to demonstrate its use.
Students and parents who choose not to take part are to be offered alternatives that include abstinence-only programs.
Parents have the choice of opting out of the health curriculum by signing a permission form, school system attorney Judith Bresler said while arguing the case yesterday morning. If the court blocked the county schools, it would hurt only the students who had agreed to take part, not those opposed to the program who could choose not to participate, she said.
"These parents cannot allege ... that they are harmed by the decisions of others," Bresler said of the groups behind the lawsuit.
But Erik Stanley, an attorney for the two groups that filed suit, said the curriculum implies that homosexuality is a biological trait, not a lifestyle choice. It excludes the viewpoints of ex-gays and those who believe that "same-sex attraction can be overcome," he said.
Williams agreed, saying that by presenting only one side of the debate, the schools were violating the free-speech rights of those who may not agree.
"The revised curriculum presents only one view on the subject — that homosexuality is a natural and morally correct lifestyle — to the exclusion of other perspectives," he wrote.