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Does Mandatory Sex Education Violate Parental Rights?

The prominent Princeton legal scholar, Robert George, contends that mandating sex education classes that promote a moral ideology to which parents are opposed usurps their constitutionally recognized authority.

In an opinion piece published in The New York Times, Robert George of Princeton University and one of his doctoral students,Melissa Moschella, argue that graphic sex education programs such as the one being forced on students by the New York City Department of Education not only force a moral ideology upon students. By offering parents only a limited opt-out, programs such as these are actually undermining the right of parents to raise their children as they see fit.

"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," George and Moschella write. "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, such as whether or not a government can 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," George writes. "Such policies violate parents' rights, whether they are Muslim, Jewish, Christian, Hindu, Buddhist or of no religion at all."

This is best understood in light of how the parent-child relationship gives rise to the duties that parental rights serve and protect. For instance, parents bring children into the world who are incapable of developing their human capacities on their own, which obligates parents to help them reach maturity by tending to not only their 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."

George and Moschella equate the right to parent to be very much 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."

While the state does have a legitimate interest in protecting children and reducing teen pregnancy and the spread of sexually transmitted diseases, "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," they write.

"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."

They argue that 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."

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