[This article was co-authored Robert P. George and Melissa Moschella.]
IMAGINE you have a 10- or 11-year-old child, just entering a public middle school. How would you feel if, as part of a class ostensibly about the risk of sexually transmitted diseases, he and his classmates were given “risk cards” that graphically named a variety of solitary and mutual sex acts? Or if, in another lesson, he was encouraged to disregard what you told him about sex, and to rely instead on teachers and health clinic staff members?
That prospect would horrify most parents. But such lessons are part of a middle-school curriculum that Dennis M. Walcott, the New York City schools chancellor, has recommended for his system’s newly mandated sex-education classes. There is a parental “opt out,” but it is very limited, covering classes on contraception and birth control.
Observers can quarrel about the extent to which what is being mandated is an effect, or a contributing cause, of the sexualization of children in our society at younger ages. But no one can plausibly claim that teaching middle-schoolers about mutual masturbation is “neutral” between competing views of morality; the idea of “value free” sex education was exploded as a myth long ago. The effect of such lessons is as much to promote a certain sexual ideology among the young as it is to protect their health.
But beyond rival moral visions, the new policy raises a deeper issue: Should the government force parents — at least those not rich enough to afford private schooling — to send their children to classes that may contradict their moral and religious values on matters of intimacy and personal conduct?
Liberals and conservatives alike should say no. Such policies violate parents’ rights, whether they are Muslim, Jewish, Christian, Hindu, Buddhist or of no religion at all. To see why, we need to think carefully about the parent-child relationship that gives rise to the duties that parental rights serve and protect.
Parents are responsible for bringing new people into the world, bound to them by blood and, ordinarily, deep feeling. These people are incapable of developing their uniquely human capacities on their own, giving parents an obligation to their children and to society to help them reach maturity — one that requires attending not only to children’s physical and emotional needs, but their intellectual and moral growth as well.
Parenting, especially in moral and religious matters, is very important and highly personal: while parents enlist others’ help in this task, the task is theirs. They are ultimately responsible for their children’s intellectual and moral maturity, so within broad limits they must be free to educate their children, especially on the deepest matters, as they judge best. This is why parental rights are so important: they provide a zone of sovereignty, a moral space to fulfill their obligations according to their consciences.
The right to parent is rather like the right to exercise one’s religion. Like parental duties, religious duties are serious and highly personal. This is why, absent the most serious reasons, it would be a grave violation of individual rights if the state prevented people from honoring what they regarded as their religious obligations. To subject children to indoctrination in deeply personal matters against their parents’ consciences is no less a violation than forcing Muslim parents to send their children to a Catholic Mass.
True, the state needs to protect children from abuse and neglect. It is also true that the state has a legitimate interest in reducing teenage pregnancy and the spread of sexually transmitted diseases. But it is not abuse or neglect to protect the innocence of preteenage children or to teach one’s children more conservative, as opposed to more liberal, moral values. Nor is it wrong or unreasonable to limit the state’s control over what one’s children learn and think about sensitive issues of morality. On the contrary, that is just what is required if parents are to fulfill their duties and exercise their legitimate rights.
Unless a broader parental opt out is added, New York City’s new policies will continue to usurp parents’ just (and constitutionally recognized) authority. Turning a classroom into a mandatory catechism lesson for a contested ideology is a serious violation of parental rights, and citizens of every ideological hue should stand up and oppose it.