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Published in Print: November 17, 2004, as Texas Slips Same-Sex-Marriage Language Into Texts

Texas Slips Same-Sex-Marriage Language Into Texts

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Just days after voters in 11 states approved bans on single-sex marriages, state school board members in Texas endorsed revisions to new health textbooks that define marriage according to the state’s own year-old law: a lifelong union between a man and a woman.

Board member Terri Leo sprang the proposed changes on her colleagues and on publishers Nov. 4, just as the board was set to vote on the textbooks.

The decision could have implications for health education nationwide, given publishers’ tendency to cater to the lucrative Texas market.

“In one fell swoop, the decision will have an extraordinarily effective impact … on the landscape of what young people will be learning in health education for probably a decade,” said Bill Smith, the vice president of public policy for the Sexuality Information and Education Council of the United States. The New York City-based advocacy group has been promoting comprehensive sex education for 40 years.

While Texas’ last-minute changes defining marriage drew national attention, the move diverted debate from the texts’ coverage of contraception and the prevention of sexually transmitted diseases—an issue that had been argued since public hearings on the content of the books were first held. ("Texans Wrangle Over Contraception in Texts," Aug. 11, 2004.)

‘Ignorance Won’

At least 10 state representatives presented a letter to the state board at a public hearing in September in favor of the textbooks, saying that while the abstinence-only message was required by law, the information on contraception was “optional,” and therefore should not be included in students’ editions.

“If forces hostile to the law were to succeed in their efforts to circumvent it by mandating inclusion of optional materials in a mandatory health course,” the lawmakers, led by Republican William Zedler, wrote, they would take up the matter in the next legislative session.

State education board member Cynthia Thornton.
Cynthia Thornton addresses her fellow state education board members in Austin, Texas, during a discussion of gay marriage and sex education in health texts.
—Harry Cabluck/AP

Critics of the texts, however, argued that the books were lacking in those areas. They said that withholding such information from students who might choose to become sexually active puts them in danger.

“These books are silent when it comes to family planning and preventing sexually transmitted disease,” said Dan Quinn, a spokesman for the Texas Freedom Network, an alliance of religious and community leaders that has pushed for more comprehensive textbooks. “It came down to a battle between ignorance and education, and ignorance won.”

Research on abstinence-only sex education programs and their influence on student behavior is limited. Two recent studies by Advocates for Youth, which promotes teaching about contraceptives, criticized federally financed abstinence-only programs, charging that they’ve done little over the past five years to stem sexual activity among teenagers.

Some experts say that while textbooks could accurately identify heterosexual marriage as the tradition in most places—and the only definition endorsed by most religions—the debate over the issue should be outlined in texts, at least for older students.

See Also

“At least the high school students are old enough to be exposed to the debates about how marriage should be defined,” Norval D. Glenn, a professor in American studies at the University of Texas at Austin, wrote in an e-mail. Mr. Glenn has studied family and gender issues, as well as how those issues are presented in textbooks.

“Of course, the persons who pushed for the definition of marriage [in the health textbooks] as only heterosexual don’t want students even to consider the possibility that marriage could be redefined,” he wrote..

In Texas, state law requires that students be taught that abstinence is the only definitive prevention for pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases. But one of the state’s standards in the subject also requires that students learn about contraceptive methods and the prevention of sexually transmitted diseases.

Three of the four textbooks under consideration included that information in teachers’ editions or supplementary materials, but not in student editions. State law requires that the topics be included in just one of those editions, leaving few options for the board to challenge the books.

Reflecting State Law?

On the marriage issue, Ms. Leo pushed for changing all gender-neutral references to couples to “husband and wife,” saying the board of education has an obligation to uphold state law.

“The law in Texas clearly defines marriage as a bond between a man and a woman … instead of partners,” she said in an interview. “We have heard from the legislature. We cannot circumvent the law.”

The board endorsed the recommended textbooks by a 13-1 vote.

Board member Mary Helen Berlanga, who voted for the textbooks, said that if the textbooks have to reflect state law precisely, they should also include information on the dangers of alcohol and drugs, as well as other criminal acts, such as rape.

Moreover, she said, “there was nothing in there to indicate that the books were somehow written with any kind of a slant to it.”

“No one is going to misinterpret this information,” she said. “And the pictures show a traditional family: a husband, a wife, and children.”

Vol. 24, Issue 12, Pages 17,22

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