New battle for moral values

19th November 2004 at 00:00
In the wake of President Bush's re-election, schools will be in the frontline of key campaigns to champion conservative policies. Stephen Phillips reports

UNITED STATES

Schools are at the forefront in the battle over moral values that divides the US in the wake of President Bush's re-election.

The religious Right, whose support was seen as decisive in re-electing Bush - an avowed born-again Christian - hopes to be repaid by changes in policy over public prayer, gay rights, the sanctity of marriage and creationism in schools.

The president is widely tipped to challenge the ban on school-sanctioned prayer, outlawed in 1963 under the constitutional separation of church and state. Reinstating voluntary prayers at sports events and assemblies is a long-standing goal of evangelical Christians, and may be a less thorny issue to tackle than abortion or positive discrimination for minorities in university admissions.

Any move would be mounted through the Supreme Court, where the president can nominate sympathetic judges with the support of enhanced Republican majorities in Congress.

David Wilkins, professor of law at Harvard university, said: "To the extent that he'll use political capital from the election in the courts, the move towards bedrock conservative values will come through issues like school prayer."

Beyond the prayer showdown, local wrangles will reflect the religious Right's rising clout. Earlier this month, Texas approved health-education textbooks that omit references to contraception - in line with White House "abstinence only" sex education policies.

Supporters say that informing students about condoms condones promiscuity and pre-marital sex. Instead, books counsel students to "get plenty of rest" to keep a clear head to avoid temptation.

But some experts believe that educating young people about their options is more effective in reducing unwanted pregnancies.

Indeed, that argument is bolstered by the fact that Texas, which has had an abstinence-based sex-education policy since President Bush was governor, has the nation's highest rates of teen pregnancy. References to same-sex relationships were also struck from textbooks in the state, and wording that defined marriage as between men and women replaced what Republicans called "asexual stealth phrases".

During the US election, 11 states voted to ban gay marriage. But legal battles over anti-gay and gay-pride T-shirts worn by students in California and Missouri underline deep divisions.

Earlier this month, a San Diego judge upheld a school's decision to bar a student from wearing a T-shirt with a slogan that denounced homosexuality, but the American Civil Liberties Union is threatening to sue a Missouri school if it does not reverse its decision to expel a student for wearing a T-shirt carrying the slogan, "I'm gay and I'm proud."

This month, hundreds of teachers petitioned a Wisconsin education authority urging it to reconsider its decision to teach creationism - a religious belief that has no place in science lessons, they said.

Last week, teachers in Atlanta challenged disclaimers on school textbooks which stated that evolution is "a theory not a fact".

Ohio and Georgia recently backed down amid a public outcry when the states tried to revise curricula to accommodate "intelligent design", which holds that the world's complexity must have sprung from a "creator".

Fundamentalism, Teacher magazine 9

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