A California Judge Says Abstinence-Only Sex Education Doesn't Count

Advocates hope the ruling will encourage other states to reevaluate their own programs.

by Allie Conti
May 14 2015, 10:00pm

Photo via Flickr user chrisjtse

A California Superior Court judge ruled earlier this month that teaching kids not to have sex rather than how to do so safely violates "an important public right." Although the ruling only applies to Fresno County's Clovis Unified School District and the five schools therein, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) hopes it will set a precedent that encourages other states to reevaluate their own programs.

It's interesting that the landmark ruling came down in the Golden State, because California is actually among the most progressive in the nation when it comes to teaching kids about sexual health. Back in 2003, lawmakers there mandated that all sex-ed materials be "medically accurate and objective"—which doesn't seem so unreasonable. But the parents who initiated the suit in Clovis County three years ago contended that some of the materials shown in classrooms were straight out of the 1950s.

For instance, according to the original suit, the students were using a textbook that advised them to "get plenty of rest" to avoid STDs, but didn't mention the existence of condoms.

And as late as 2013, some schools were apparently still showing the video "Sex Still Has a Price Tag," which "espouses extreme and biased viewpoints against women and teaches that condoms provide no protection from the transmission of STDs, that hormonal birth control makes women ten times more likely to contract an STD, and that the only legitimate relationship is a monogamous heterosexual marriage," according to the judge. (Among other artistic indulgences, the film compares a sexually active woman to a dirty shoe.)

After the suit was filed, the school district started making changes to comply with the law. The parents felt safe dropping the suit last year, so Judge Donald S. Black's decision was about who will pay attorney fees for the lengthy court battle. Phyllida Burlingame, Reproductive Justice Policy Director at the ACLU, says she hopes that the fear of a costly suit will cause other school districts to make sure their policies are in line with state law.

But many states' laws aren't as demanding as the one in California. Federally funded, abstinence-only sex-ed came about during the AIDS epidemic and "got a huge boost in the mid 90s," when it was written into a welfare reform law, Burlingame explains. This federal funding ballooned under George W. Bush and only began to decrease in 2010.

Still, as of this month, only 22 states and Washington DC have laws mandating sex-ed, according to a report by the Guttmacher Institute. Remarkably, only two states outright ban their programs from being religious, and three insist on requiring that only "negative" information be taught with regards to sexual orientation. And California law technically only requires that middle- and high-school students be taught how to prevent HIV/AIDS; if schools want to go further than that, however, they must be "comprehensive," according to the Sacramento Bee.

Burlingame says that religion is slowly being deemphasized in various states' programs and that parents have the power to demand medically accurate information through the legal system.

"We hope that this ruling in Clovis is something that can serve as a national wake-up call or incentive for school districts or states that have similar requirements to take a look at the cirricula that they're using," she says. "And it shows it takes advocacy by students and their parents to say, 'Not on our watch, you cannot provide this misinformation that puts youth populations at risk.'"

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