Federal judge: Parents don't have right to dictate curriculum

By The Associated Press
02.26.07

BOSTON — A federal judge has thrown out a lawsuit filed by parents who objected to discussions of gay families in their children's classrooms, ruling the parents do not have the right to dictate curriculum in public schools.

U.S. District Judge Mark Wolf said federal courts have decided in other cases that the constitutional right of parents to raise their children does not include the right to restrict what a public school may teach them. Those earlier rulings also have held that teachings that contradict a parent's religious beliefs do not violate their First Amendment right to exercise their religion, Wolf said.

"In essence under the Constitution public schools are entitled to teach anything that is reasonably related to the goals of preparing students to become engaged and productive citizens in our democracy," he wrote in the Feb. 23 ruling Parker v. Hurley.

"Diversity is a hallmark of our nation. It is increasingly evident that our diversity includes differences in sexual orientation," he wrote.

Wolf dismissed both the federal and state claims made in the lawsuit, but said the parents could refile the lawsuit in state court.

The case has attracted attention in part because Massachusetts is the only state in the nation that allows same-sex marriage.

Tonia and David Parker, of Lexington, sued last year after their son brought home a book from kindergarten that depicted different kinds of families, including a gay family. Another Lexington couple, Joseph and Robin Wirthlin, joined the suit after a second-grade teacher read to the class, King and King, a fairy tale that tells the story of two princes falling in love.

Both couples said they have religious beliefs that homosexuality is immoral and that marriage is a holy union between a man and a woman. They argued that Lexington school officials violated their parental rights to teach their own morals to their children.

"It boils down to this simple thing: The parents have a fundamental right to be the primary directors of their children's upbringing and moral education," David Parker said on Feb. 23.

"At the very least, this translates to monitoring the curriculum and conversations going on in elementary school," he said.

Jeffrey Denner, an attorney for the parents, said they would appeal Wolf's ruling to the 1st U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals and also refile the claims in state court.

Parker said Lexington school administrators violated a state law requiring that parents be given notice and an opportunity to exempt their children from any curriculum that "primarily involves human sexual education or human sexuality."

But John Davis, an attorney for Lexington school officials, said the books cited by the Parkers and the Wirthlins did not focus on sex education, but merely depicted various families, including same-sex families.

Davis said school officials view the decision as confirmation they can teach diversity and tolerance to students without violating student or parental rights.

In his ruling, Wolf said parents have a fundamental right to raise their children and are not required to abandon that responsibility to the state. But he said the Parkers and the Wirthlins have alternatives if they do not approve of the curriculum at public schools, including private schools, home-schooling and working to elect a Lexington school committee that will choose a curriculum more compatible with their beliefs.

"However, the Parkers and Wirthlins have chosen to send their children to the Lexington public schools with its current curriculum. The Constitution does not permit them to prescribe what those children will be taught," Wolf said.

The American Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts, which supported Lexington school officials, praised the ruling.

"This is not a case about teaching about homosexuality. This is a case where Lexington sought to teach about diversity and about having respect," said Sarah Wunsch, staff attorney for the ACLU.

"It's not about sexuality; they were teaching about different kinds of families."