Utah's State Textbook Commission finds itself walking a very thin tightrope, trying to maintain a balance between teaching children acceptance of all individuals while discouraging them from sexual practices frowned on by the State Board of Education.
Tuesday, the commission delayed adoption of a guideline to help school districts select textbooks that reflect both positions. The group asked Carol Lear, legal advisor in the State Office of Education, to research legal cases and opinions on the topic. They will reconsider the issue in November.The commission earlier developed a proposed guideline to help districts evaluate textbooks that contain materials on human sexuality. The board considered that proposal and attempted to fine-tune it to exclude textbook materials that indicate acceptance or approval of homosexuality, contraceptive use or sexual relations outside marriage.
The debate really centers on semantics, said Lear. The nuances of "acceptance" vs. "approval" are at the root of the differences between the suggested guidelines. Although the words are often used interchangeably, "acceptance" may intimate an attitude of intolerance or bias, while "approval" has a somewhat different connotation.
Although the differences could appear insignificant, lawsuits often are based on such nuances, Lear said. She said she was not aware of legal precedents that apply directly to the Utah situation, but a number of lawsuits have centered on the rights of school districts to base hiring or firing decisions on a teacher's sexual orientation.
She said courts consider community standards in making decisions on such issues, but balance those standards against individual rights.
The state board first advocated exclusion of materials that promote "the acceptance" of the objectionable sexual practices, and later changed to a position barring "the approval" of such practices. The commission's proposal avoids both those words and instead advises selection of materials that do not "advocate" the practices.
"We don't want to advocate homosexuality, but we need to give approval to persons," said commission member Susan Rather. "We can't have a discriminatory policy based on an individual's private behavior, unless it threatens someone else."
The state board has been adamant in setting policy directions that promote premarital sexual abstinence and marital fidelity as the fundamental positions.