Utah faith leaders sound off on sex education
By lisa schencker
The Salt Lake TribuneFirst published Mar 23 2012 11:17AM
Amid all the chirping and buzzing of late from politicians, parents, advocates and educators about the birds and the bees, there hasn’t been much chatter from at least one group: Utah’s religious leaders.
What do they think about sex education in schools? After all, many people’s opinions on the topic are wrapped up in their beliefs about God, Scripture and marriage.
So — in the wake of the passage and veto of HB363, which would have required Utah schools to either drop sex ed or teach abstinence-only, avoiding mention of contraception — The Salt Lake Tribune spoke with a handful of faith leaders about whether public classrooms should teach kids about sex.
Evangelicals are a diverse group, sure to have a variety of opinions on sex ed in schools, said Greg Johnson, president of the Standing Together Ministries coalition of evangelical churches across the Wasatch Front.
But he said many evangelicals are likely to want schools to tread lightly.
"It would not be uncommon to think a good percentage of evangelicals would believe abstinence should be taught in school and morality should be taught in school," Johnson said, "but details of procreation and sex and intimacy should be taught in the environment of the home."
That includes discussions of contraception and the intricacies of sex.
Johnson, a supporter of HB363, said a concern among many evangelicals might be that schools attempt to teach sex in a values-neutral way, when evangelicals would rather their kids be taught within the context of "God’s design for sex and marriage and intimacy."
Evangelicals believe sex should be reserved for marriage.
"Whenever we … assume it will be discussed by teachers rather than parents, we make a mistake," Johnson said. "I think society needs to hold our families and our parents to the standard that [home] is the place where it should be discussed. I think that is where it should be done, not with some stranger who may not necessarily have the same values that I do."
Scott Trotter, a spokesman for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, declined to comment on the issue.
But the Salt Lake City-based faith’s Handbook 2: Administering the Church speaks to the topic in its section of "Policies on Moral Issues."
"Parents have primary responsibility for the sex education of their children," the book says. "Teaching this subject honestly and plainly in the home will help young people avoid serious moral transgressions. To help parents teach this sensitive and important information, the church has published A Parent’s Guide.
"Where schools have undertaken sex education, parents should seek to ensure that the instructions given to their children are consistent with sound moral and ethical values."
According to that same handbook, "The Lord’s law of chastity is abstinence from sexual relations outside of lawful marriage and fidelity within marriage."
Members who break this law, the book adds, could lose their standing in the faith.
Many members of Cottonwood Presbyterian Church would likely say sex ed should be taught in schools, said Pastor Jeff Silliman.
"Theoretically, we should be able to get good sex education in our homes, but, practically, that happens in very few homes," Silliman said. He said even if churches provided sex education to kids, as an alternative, that still would reach only a fraction of the population as a whole.
Silliman believes it’s appropriate for schools to cover topics such as contraception, sexually transmitted diseases (STDs) and homosexuality as part of sex ed.
"It’s part of human sexuality," he said.
It can be tough, Silliman noted, for public schools to teach kids about sex because there’s no universal agreement on the values that should accompany such instruction.
He said abstinence is one way of preventing teen pregnancy and STDs, but schools shouldn’t be dismissive of other options, such as contraception, given people’s differing values.
His church encourages abstinence before marriage, but also believes in forgiveness.
"We encourage chastity before marriage and fidelity in marriage," Silliman said, "but we don’t take people out and shoot them if that’s not what happens."
Utah’s Catholic schools don’t shy away from teaching about sex either, said Susan Cook Northway, director of religious education for the Catholic Diocese of Salt Lake City.
Cook Northway said she couldn’t speak to whether public schools should teach the topic, but noted that Catholic schools teach kids about relationships, respect and morality from a young age. In the diocese’s three Catholic high schools, juniors and seniors learn about sex in a way that’s integrated throughout the curriculum.
They learn about STDs, dating, reproduction and abstinence, among other things.
"We don’t believe in pretending those things don’t exist," she said. "They do, and we’re concerned about people respecting their bodies and keeping healthy."
Contraception is not part of the curriculum.
"That is a matter for families, for parents as the primary educators, to make decisions about what kind of education" their kids should receive. She said parents are considered partners with the classrooms when it comes to what the schools call "family life education."
But she said all the lessons are taught within a larger context.
"It’s all based upon the idea that we’re made in the image and likeness of God," Cook Northway said, "and, because of that, we each have innate dignity, and relationships flow from that idea, so they always involve respect, trust and love."
She said the schools also teach teens not to make decisions based on selfish motives and believe abstinence before marriage is the ideal, though "we also are very aware that not everybody is going to be able to have that ideal operate in their lives for various reasons."
The Islamic view on sex ed in schools is simple: It shouldn’t be done, said Imam Muhammed Mehtar, of the Islamic Society of Greater Salt Lake.
"There’s a thing that we say, ‘Out of sight, out of mind,’ " Mehtar said. "The more we involve ourselves in such adulterated topics, we are going to contribute to the curiosity of a child. So we first talk about it, then the child wants to experiment with what’s being talked about."
It’s not that Muslims are against sex education, he said, but they generally believe it shouldn’t be taught until a person is ready to marry. Therefore, he said, there’s no reason to teach sex education to minors.
"If you cannot get married, why must you talk about something married people should be indulging themselves in?"
"A resounding yes" is the answer most members of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church would likely give to the question of whether public schools should offer sex ed, said Father Emil Belsky, rector of the Salt Lake City church.
"To not provide sex education," Belsky said, "is to leave our young people with nothing but what they’ve learned on the Internet and from one another."
He said many parents are uncomfortable discussing sex with their children. The opportunity to hear a reasonable explanation of human reproduction from a respected adult, he said, is "almost an absolute must in today’s society."
Belsky said most Episcopalians he knows would likely be in favor of those lessons including information on contraception as well as a definition of homosexuality. He said the Episcopal Church tends to be inclusive when it comes to such issues.
"When someone is of LGBT [lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender] persuasion, it’s easy to malign them as ‘the other’ when you don’t know about them and you have no actual relationship with them."
Belsky said most Episcopalians would likely argue abstinence before marriage should be an option. Others would maintain that premarital sex and/or living together before marriage are also reasonable.
When he works with couples before their marriages, Belsky doesn’t tell them they shouldn’t have premarital sex. He said that’s a personal decision for them to make.
"It’s a rarity in this day and age, in working with young couples, if they say that they are both virgins."
Belsky was thrilled the governor vetoed HB363.
Many progressive Jews, such as those at Park City’s Temple Har Shalom, would likely also support sex ed in schools in addition to in the home and/or at religious institutions, said the synagogue’s Rabbi Joshua Aaronson.
"I certainly don’t believe the school should be the final word or the only place in which these issues are broached," Aaronson said, "but I think the school has a role to play, especially considering there may be homes in which these issues don’t get taught and don’t get discussed, and then all of us are responsible for the social consequences of teenage pregnancy."
In fact, he said the Reform synagogue teaches a curriculum to students in its upper grades that includes information about intimate relationships, contraception and STDs within the context of Jewish values. They’re told that sex should be within the context of a "consensual, caring, committed relationship between two mature adults" but not necessarily that they must wait until marriage. It’s an approach that, he said, acknowledges that in progressive Jewish communities, people often don’t get married until after college and, in many cases, even later.
The Rev. Tom Goldsmith, of the First Unitarian Church of Salt Lake City, said the vast majority of his congregants would likely agree that sex ed should be offered in public schools.
He said the instruction is "one of the greatest gifts and educational tools" schools can provide to young people.
In fact, the Unitarian Universalist Association partnered with the United Church of Christ to create sex-ed curricula for kindergartners through adults, called "Our Whole Lives." The program includes lessons about contraception, STDs, relationships and homosexuality.
"We feel that knowledge about sexuality actually helps children and prevents them from making some horrible mistakes," Goldsmith said. "I think knowledge gives them power, gives them confidence, and they will know how to act more responsibly in whatever situation they confront.
"Denying kids access to this kind of knowledge and information," he said, "is really ignoring life’s realities."
Goldsmith said he can’t speak for all Unitarians, but they generally do not advocate for abstinence before marriage. He said such a stance would be impractical and unrealistic.
"I would hate to think that they were getting married just to explore their own sexuality and sensuality because that might be a great mistake."
Last Sunday, from his pulpit, Goldsmith publicly thanked Herbert for his veto. His congregation burst into applause.