An open letter to Teton County School District regarding the educational and constitutional importance of offering students a diverse education.
I would like to share my personal opinion as well as constitutional information regarding Shelly Donahue being cancelled as a speaker in the public middle and high schools this past week. I want it to be clear that my position is not a religious one. In my 40 years I have lived 36 of them without a declared religion. My position is based in a desire for a quality, diverse, and inclusive education for my kids.
I am going to assume that most are aware of the current controversy surrounding Shelly Donahue’s invitation to discuss abstinence in the public schools and during school hours. This topic is thick with concerns, opinions, opposing viewpoints, etc. I could probably write a novel and not address even half of the ongoing dialogue. For the sake of time, I will limit my points to three topics that seemed to be repeated and discussed the most often in social media threads; the science of sex education, the separation of church and state, and the implications of Shelly Donahue being cancelled as a speaker based on her religion.
Science is the intellectual and practical activity encompassing the systematic study of the structure and behavior of the physical and natural world through observation and experiment. Social science is the scientific study of human society and social relationships. Sex education could easily fall under either umbrella for education purposes. The study of sex organs, reproduction, and sexual disease would be incorporated into the scientific study of the physical attributes of sex. The study and discussion of sexual behavior, abstinence, sexual violence, gender identity etc. would be incorporated into the scientific study of the behavioral aspects of sex.
There has been some question as to what the sex education standards are for our school district and many are calling for clarification on that; which I do not disagree with. But until those clarifications are given, I will suggest that the TCSD has already set a precedent for sex education by the invitation of Jeff Bucholtz to speak to students without prior parental consent and that by this invitation the school board endorses discussions regarding sexual behavior on school property during school hours. Shelly Donahue was scheduled to speak in small group settings during school hours the following week. She was to present on abstinence and the risks of teen sex and why teens should wait. Even though Shelly’s presentation, unlike Jeff’s, was announce to parents with a chance to “opt out” there was some public outrage, letters written, and ultimately Shelly Donahue’s presentation to the 8th-12th grade students was cancelled because of some public fear that Shelly’s presentation would cross the line regarding the separation of church and state.
The constitutional background for the separation of church and state can be found in the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment. This clause prohibits the government from making any law “respecting an establishment of religion”. It also prohibits the government from unduly preferring non-religion over religion. The state may not establish a “religion of secularism” or show hostility to religion. Much of the debate regarding religion in schools is not settled by the wording in the constitution, as that wording is not there, but through the U.S. court system’s rulings over the years. Various cases that are similar in content to the Shelly Donahue situation have been presented before a judge. Many of the rulings have supported that ‘viewpoint discrimination’ is unconstitutional, even during school hours and on school property. To provide one example: In 2003 the District Court of Eastern Michigan ruled against a public school that refused to include conservative religious speakers on a pro-gay theology panel during the school’s diversity week. Some court documented statements from the proceedings were as follows:
“A school’s restrictions on speech reasonably related to legitimate pedagogical concerns must still be viewpoint neutral” In layman’s terms, if the school is to allow one viewpoint they must allow another. They must remain neutral in position. Providing only one viewpoint is not neutral.
“The notion of sponsorship of one viewpoint to the exclusion of another hardly seems to further the school’s purported objective of “celebrating diversity”.
Diversity, exclusion, inclusion; these are loaded words. As a society, we are told to be tolerant and inclusive of a variety of lifestyles even if we are morally opposed to them in our individual beliefs. We are often even mandated to be inclusive by the law. What does it teach our children if we are not inclusive in their schools and in their curriculum? To repeat myself, constitutionally speaking, the Establishment Clause not only prohibits the establishment of a particular religion but also the establishment of the “religion of secularism”. If I were to break that down into my own words, I read that to say that all points of view (assuming they are not illegal in nature) are to be afforded equal access to our kids in public schools. I not only believe that it was narrow-minded to cancel Shelly’s talk but I also believe it to be potentially unconstitutional. Many cases have been won in the courts in favor of a defendant that, like Shelly Donahue, was discriminated against based on a viewpoint.
Discrimination is another hot topic in our culture. There are very strict laws regarding discrimination in this country, specifically religious discrimination. I read numerous times on social media that concerned people felt Shelly was not appropriate or qualified to talk to our kids about sex or abstaining from sex because of the religious nature of her personal webpage. That would be akin to saying a science teacher is not qualified to teach about evolution if they practice Christianity outside of the school. To go a step further, if that educator were to be asked to resign because of personal beliefs, they would have a valid lawsuit against the school. In choosing to cancel Shelly Donahue’s presentation based on a fear of her connection to a specific religion, TCSD is in a potentially precarious position regarding discrimination.
To close, I love our community. I am proud of how people of different backgrounds and faiths came together to form Jackson Hole United, pro-life and pro-choice citizens standing for civility, compassion, and love, united to protect our community and children.
I am sad that this platform was used to stir up a fervor of intolerance, fear and bias. I am sad that we disappointed our kids in such a public way by telling them with our actions that we didn’t believe they could handle a large and diverse body of information and allow them the opportunity to discern for themselves their own truths.
A quote from Aristotle:
It is the mark of an educated mind to be able to entertain a thought without accepting it.