In this special episode, Sean and Scott discuss the new 2019 California Sexual Health Standards for public schools. Since California often sets trends for the wider country, people need to pay close attention. They highlight positive aspects of the new framework, but also raise some serious concerns about its lack of diversity, openness and inclusion for religious believers. This is an episode every parent, teacher, and pastor must listen to and consider sharing with a friend.
Scott Rae: Welcome to the podcast, Think Biblically: Conversations on Faith and Culture. I'm your host, Scott Rae, Dean of Faculty and Professor of Christian Ethics at Talbot School of Theology at Biola University.
Sean McDowell: I'm your co-host, Sean McDowell, Professor of Christian Apologetics at Talbot School of Theology, Biola University.
Scott Rae: For our podcast today, we have a conversation between Sean and I about something that has come into the public schools that has been recently instituted by the California Department of Education. They are new California Health Standards that are going to be applicable throughout the public schools in the state of California. It's just going to be the two of us today. We want to talk about what's in these new health standards, why it matters, why it matters if you're a parent or if you're a student or if you're a teacher, and there's a lot to unpack here. We want to do that in the next few minutes.
It's also available still for comment that you can give to educational officials. It will not be formally adopted until May of 2019 so there's still time to have some sort of comment on it. At least there will be by the time this podcast is first posted. The reason, part of the reason we're talking about this is because California typically says trans for the rest of the country.
Sean McDowell: That's right.
Scott Rae: I don't think this area is any different than that. Sean, what's the goal for this new standards that we apply throughout public education in California on health and wellness, and will also include a lot of things that have to do with sexuality?
Sean McDowell: Well, my kids do go to a private school but I went to a public school. My wife taught at a public school. I started hearing about this kind of the end of 2018, beginning at 2019 that there was this new health education framework that's been instituted in California. It was in the back of my mind. I heard a little podcast on it, a couple of articles here and there, but it didn't seem to get huge press. Finally, just a few weeks ago I thought, you know what, I'm going to read this for myself, make up my own mind, and I want to see what the California Department of Education is mandating to be taught to kids, kindergarten all the way up.
Of course, the intention is in Chapter 1 it says, "The health of California youth maybe improved by high quality health education." That makes perfect sense. I have no interest and question anybody's motivation behind these health standards. I really think they're trying to help kids be more healthy so they can learn more and it benefits our state. That's great. My concern though are really two things, that the state has intentionally adopted a progressive view of student health that undermines a religious view of human flourishing whether it's Christian, Muslim, Jewish, Mormon or even other conservatives that may not be of a religious nature.
Second, it claims to be diverse, inclusive, and open but in reality is none of these. That's kind of what's going on, some of my concern. I would say there's a lot of good stuff in this. We have to recognize that. There's stuff about proper nutrition. Excellent. I love in public schools, they've taken out candy and soda, put in healthier stuff. Great. There's stuff about injury prevention and physical safety measures. Now kids do drills for potential school shootings. All this is wonderful, but in particular, which is no surprise, when it comes to issues of marriage and sexual health, there's a direct contradiction and I would say, and I don't say this lightly, I think it's systematic indoctrination of the next generation rather than genuine education.
Scott Rae: One of the other things that in looking through this, one of the things that seem to me to be really helpful in this was some of the guidance and guidelines that they have for both students and parents to deal with media messages, social media, things like that. We're hearing more and more about some of the cautions that were being issued. We hear about, for example, some of the leaders of the tech industry not allowing their kids to have iPhones because of just some of the things that they see are happening to middle school, high school students.
I think that'd be another, I think, really positive point of this that's worth pointing out is that there seem to be really in touch with what media, particularly social media, the impact that that's having on students today and how that can be better managed to make it more useful without incurring some of the downsides. I know you've talked a lot about that, too. You've seen some of the downsides about how that impacts the ability to form relationships and keeps life at a superficial, if not imaginary level.
Sean McDowell: Yeah. Look, I was pleasantly surprised when I read through this. By the way, if anybody just searches California Framework 2019 and throw in like education, this will come up. It must be between eight and 10 different chapters that some of them are 100 plus pages. I mean this took me hours to read through. In some ways, I don't want our listeners to just take my word for it. I want them to go back and read it themselves carefully.
One of the things that jumped out it said they want to teach kids how to recognize damaging media messages. I thought this is wonderful. I want my kids to. Now, what they consider a damaging media message is going to vary but in principle it's clearly people that are trying to help out with kids. My concern is just like what are they teaching, how early are they teaching it, and how does this match up in particular to Christian world view.
Scott Rae: Let's go to that. How early part because it's pretty clear from chapter three in this that part of the intent is to start this really early. In fact, I was with a former student, I ran into a former student of mine on campus yesterday. He had two of his four kids with him. They were holding their kids out of school on that particular day as a part of a protest about the implementation of these standards. Two of their kids, I think, I'm just going by vision, but the youngest kid with him I think was a daughter who probably wasn't more than six or seven years old. The older one was probably closer to nine or 10. It struck me that they were holding her out because this was starting at that young an age.
Sean McDowell: But here's the key to keep in mind, is that there was talk about how in Orange Count you could not pull your kids from this education. I did a little research and there's a Snopes article on this. I'm assuming they got it right. I tracked down the sources. They said that educators have to warn parents ahead of time of the specific sex education training that's coming out related to say, STDs or HIV, et cetera. They cannot and will not warn them and parents cannot pull their kids from some of the training related to gender issues and identity because that would be discrimination.
So anybody who has a kid there has to realize they're not going to be told when this happens, and they're going to be given the right to pull out their kids at least in Orange County. I can't speak to the rest of the county beyond. Anybody involved in this needs to go in right away. Talk to parents, talk to principals. At least have a sense of what's going on specifically in their school, find out what they can.
Scott Rae: It's also pretty clear from this that anybody who teaches or holds a position impacting students in the public schools has to be on board with this. Biola's got a whole teacher education program. We put a lot of teachers in the public schools. This could create really significant ethical issues for teachers who are teaching in elementary, middle school, and high school. What do you think is the impact of this going to be on Christian teachers in the public schools?
Sean McDowell: Let me take a step back, if I can, and talk about about the early education then the question you're asking about educators. You mentioned chapter three, page 43 and I document all of this in a blog, people can access it. It's helpful. Here is one of the stated goals of the kindergarten sex education. It says, "While students may not fully understand the concepts of gender expression identity, some children in kindergarten and even younger have identified as transgender or understanding of a gender identity that is different from their sex assigned at birth. This may present itself in different ways including dress, activity preference, experimenting in a dramatic play, feeling uncomfortable, self-identifying with their sex assigned at birth."
"However, gender non-conformity does not necessarily indicate that an individual's transgender and all forms of gender expression should be respected." So you see in kindergarten coming forward an attempt to at least teach or promote or push a certain idea of how gender relates to sex at birth. Now, what's interesting is educators are instructed to partner with the community ...
Scott Rae: Hold that thought. I think there's some good news in that though. That it's the recognition, that gender non-conformity does not necessarily indicate that an individual is transgender.
Sean McDowell: True.
Scott Rae: I think that's really helpful because the research has been done in the last 10, 15 years shows that about 80% of students who wrestle with transgender type issues eventually, as the research put it, they mature out of that and end up having a settled, sort of a settled conviction about their gender identity connecting with their biological sex.
Sean McDowell: They just naturally grow out of it, so to speak.
Scott Rae: Right.
Sean McDowell: That's right.
Scott Rae: I think if this, to suggest that sort of I guess maybe to lightly put it would be don't jump to conclusions about whether a person is transgender or not based on the experience of gender dysphoria that they might experience as a middle school or a high school student. I think it's really wise advice.
Sean McDowell: I think so, too.
Scott Rae: Now the part that all from the gender expression should be respected maybe we can cash that out a little bit and talk about you know, what that might look like if it's something like having restrooms that are gender neutral in the schools. I'm less concerned about that than maybe other things that might be promoting an agenda that would be encouraging people to do something that might be more drastic. Once they get a little older let's say end up having gender reassignment surgery or something like that is a lot more difficult to reverse.
Sean McDowell: Where the rubber meets the road is where this stuff gets really sticky and people differ how they view it. My concern is that after this framework with kindergartners, educators are instructed to partner with the community by bringing in different guest speakers who will serve as role models. They mentioned, for example, include individuals of all genders, which in another passage they said there's an infinite number of genders so I'm not sure how you bring in an infinite number of people. I digress being the philosopher here.
The point is they say, "Make sure you bring in people who are transgender." Since we live in a diverse state and there's people wide range of beliefs, part of me says, "Okay. Fine." But what they don't do is they don't encourage the inclusion of people who have stories of say, sex change regret. Or the medical evidence that sex change frequently does not provide the wholeness and long-term happiness people seek. I'm actually just pushed to saying, "Wait a minute, are we only going to show one side? Or are we actually going to educate kids?"
Because when you only show one side you make it seem like this is settled and there's not a debate about this, and I think culturally that's partly the idea they want us to have here is that this is completely settled. But I'm not sure that it is. If we're really educating kids and we really live in a diverse state, shouldn't we expose them to these different perspectives and let kids start to make up their own world view rather than just push one side on?
Scott Rae: Well, I suspect that what we'll see in this is that presentation of a whole host of different options but without any assessment going with them so that students will be left with this sort of low level relativism that any of these options are as good as the next. When in reality we're not doing people any favors if we don't offer some sort of assessment of you know, how this might contribute to student actually flourishing in their life.
Sean McDowell: Right. I don't even know if some of the other voices will be included in these panels. I'm suspicious that they won't. That's at least my concern that parents need to know about. Now, you mentioned earlier about California educators being on board. This struck me because my wife taught for a number of years, Math at a public school and she was ... We had a lot of conversations like how do I respect the guidelines and rules that are there, yet if the kid does want to talk about my life or my relationships or my faith I'm open to in a way that's fair and just, like we're always trying to balance those things respectfully yet in a strategic manner.
When I read this, I thought, "Wow." Chapter seven says that essentially, all educators are to be on board with this new framework. Specifically it said achieving these goals requires that all teachers, professional learning staff, administrators, and district leaders share the responsibility. Teachers are instructed to encourage the formation of LGBTQ plus clubs on campus uniquely, address students with their desired pronoun and consistent with their gender identity, use books such as My Princess Boy, which our listeners can check out, hang rainbow flags in their classroom to ensure that all gender identities and expressions are welcomed in the classroom.
What we're starting to see is teachers are kind of being told, "You have to view relationships and identity and sexuality through this framework if you're going to teach here." Now I'm not going to tell a teacher listening how they have to operate according to their conscience but this is coming to cross the line, so to speak. It's no longer an issue that's out there. But teachers before the Lord, and I know my wife would have to, now teaching math it might be a little easier than something else, but there comes a point where you just go, "Wait a minute, this is violating my rights as a Christian educator to live according to what I think is true." It really puts Christian educators, I think, in a bind.
Scott Rae: Let's look at some of the specific things teachers are being asked to do. What about addressing students with their desired name and pronoun? I want to be careful that we don't play into a narrative that is contrary to a Christian world view. But I think teachers probably need some help on deciding well, what hills am I actually going to die on. For example, would that be a hill that you would die on using a child's preferred name and pronoun.
Sean McDowell: Here's what my concern is. I've talked with people on both sides of this issue. I have a friend, a mutual friend of ours, who says, "Look, on my integrity, I'm not going to be forced to refer to a biological male as a female. This violates my rights and integrity as a person." I might see it differently than he does but part of me says, "Shouldn't he have the right to live and teach that way, not be forced to. On the flip side I have friends that I've talked and they're lik, "It's just, it's a pronoun, it's a name. I'm not going to die on that hill that doesn't cause me any cognitive dissonance before the Lord, before my conscience."
I actually say, "Fine." But what this framework is doing is it's not allowing the people who, in their conscience before the Lord who really say, "Gosh, I'm being forced by the speech code to use certain language," that's kind of the concern whether or not I personally would do it. Those people are getting rooted out, so to speak. We've seen this with the teacher in Virginia who lost his job and they're working this through the courts right now. So some of these remains to be played out in the courts but it does put a good number of religious believers and even people like Jordan Peterson who doesn't have a problem with it religiously but from a free speech standpoint from Canada, "I don't want to be coerced into doing this.
Scott Rae: What are the options for teachers if they're required do a number of these things? Say they're required to hang rainbow flags in the classroom or if they're required to promote the formation of some of these organizations in classrooms, what options do they have assuming that they want to stay employed? Because I guess my default position for teachers in the public schools is to keep your place at the table here because if you leave your position, the chances are that the person who replaces you is not going to have the same kind of sensitive conscience that you do. I have great sympathy for teachers who are they are trying to navigate this. Can we help them with some guidelines about where to draw some lines and what hills to die on?
Sean McDowell: Legally, I don't know the answer to that. I'm not a lawyer and I don't want to speak outside of my expertise. I've talked to some of my friends in Canada who have wrestled with this and some say, "Well, they require me to put up posters. I put it up on the back of the door." Just on their way before the Lord they will put up things strategically that they feel like is not encroaching on their ability to teach. There's always creative ways to try to just push back on that. Gosh, when it comes to gender pronouns I've heard certain people say, "Look, I just won't use any gender pronouns in class for anybody." That becomes crazy. Like it honestly becomes nuts.
I heard one teacher who said, "I just won't use gender pronouns for that person in particular," but then the person said, "Why don't just not even using them, ignoring them gets me kind of in trouble, so to speak. So my advice would probably be I would go to the higher reps in your school and I would talk with them. I would probably talk with a lawyer if you find yourself ... The Alliance for Defending Freedom, I would call them right away and say, "What are my options? What can I do?" It's better to find out ahead of time than it is too late. But we also have to ask our consciences like just because I feel bad doing something, does it mean it's actually wrong to do it?
I have a friend who's a youth pastor and he was asked to be an LGBTQ Club advisor. I said, "Did you do it?" He said, "Of course." I said, "Why?" He goes, "Because LGBTQ kids wanted to hang out with me." He had no problem doing it and actually started asking them, "What does the Bible say about this?" A couple of kids came to the youth group and became believers. They asked him all this stuff. I think we have to ask ourselves really clearly what hill am I going to die on? When is my religious freedom mean violated?
There does come a point where an educator might have to say, "You know what, I'm going to find another means of employment. I can only push my conscience so far." I think if my wife was forced to do all these, and I'm not saying they're forced and everybody do this. There's between what written in and maybe leeway that principals give, but if she was forced to do some of these, I think there would come a point where we'll just on principle, "We're probably going elsewhere."
Scott Rae: Let me recommend another resource for our listeners on this. It's an organization called Gateways to Better Education. You can contact them at the website gogateways.org. It's headed by a long time friend of mine, Eric Buehrer who has been navigating these pathways for Christian students, Christian teachers in the public schools for the last 20, 25 years. They have lots of experience at advising teachers about what they can and cannot do within the law. My guess is that they'll have something to say, really helpful guidelines on some of these areas, too. That's gogateways.org. It's the best organization that I know of that helps teachers navigate through some of these.
Now, the other thing that I think is easy to observe at first glance with these new standards is the desire to be inclusive of kids and teachers, I think, regardless of how they view their gender, their sexuality, their orientation, if you want to use that term. It sounds on the surface like they're creating this really big tent to include as many people so that kids who are genuinely wrestling with some of these things don't feel like they have no place to go.
It's not hard to envision a scenario where there will be people coming from different world views, people who see issues of sexuality differently who might end up being the ones marginalized themselves. I'm curious, how do you think that people of other faith besides Christian, Muslim, Jewish faith, Mormon, what do you think their reaction will be to these health standards and having their kids in the public schools being exposed to this?
Sean McDowell: I think the first thing they need to do is they need to read them. Read the standards themselves. My blog will give you a summary of it but go look at it yourself. I think they'll go right [crosstalk]
Scott Rae: Although we should warn people in advance, you're in for a tough slug.
Sean McDowell: It is, yeah. [crosstalk] Just hundreds of pages.
Scott Rae: There's a lot of it that ... We should say this again, there's a lot of what we think is very positive and very helpful.
Sean McDowell: Of course.
Scott Rae: So we don't want be perceived as just focusing in on the fairly small percentage of material that is potentially we think harmful. At least read the part that's about sexual health. If nothing [crosstalk]
Sean McDowell: I don't think you'll have concerns probably about the rest of it. You find words like openness, diversity, inclusion all over this report. In fact, at the beginning it mentions socio-economic, racial, religious diversity. So clearly, the framers of this are aware that people of a range of religious beliefs make up California. When it comes to the actual policies, whether they intend it to or not, they are not promoting a neutral view of sexuality. In fact, I'm not even sure you could promote a neutral view of sexuality.
I'll give you an example. A pretty frank one, and I think our audience needs to hear. Junior high teachers are encouraged to guide students through role playing activities, break up students in a group, give them a scenario. They role play, they act it out, and then they present it back to the group as a whole. This is junior high kids so 12 to 14 roughly. Here's the prompt. Two students are at a party. One asks the other for oral sex. Now, students are to discuss this scenario in small groups, dramatize it, and bring it back.
Now, the teacher then leads students through a "objective discussion" on the activity, be sure to reiterate "that there's not one correct answer" and often more than one answer as every situation as unique to each individual student. The attempt to this activity is to create kid space to think about this, to process this, to hear other people. I totally get that. But essentially what this teacher is saying is we can break kids up into groups and somebody who says, "Yes, I decide oral sex is great. Let's do it." Somebody else who says, "No it's not healthy," she can't make any judgment between those and they're both presented as if they're equal, fine alternatives for a junior high-er to consider.
The attempt to this is to try to be neutral but it's not. They're giving a message of sexuality, in this case, oral sex that just says there's difference, we can disagree. If you think it's fine for you, it's fine for you. If you think it's wrong for you, it's wrong for you. It's a relativistic view that flies in the face of a moral religious view that says, "No. God designed sex for a purpose." My concern is not that I'm afraid of my kids to get a different viewpoint. I mean I take my students to Berkeley and we bring in atheists but this is a systematic attempt that directly conflicts.
I could give you example after example here that it claims to be ... So here's another example. It says, "Bring in panels and specifically invite somebody from Planned Parenthood." But it doesn't say, "Invite somebody from a local Praying Resource Center." Why not hear both sides? If we're really interested in educating kids, they should hear both sides. But they don't. It's consistently one side that's presented and that side is at odds with a religious firm in particular Christian view of sexuality.
Scott Rae: It's not like that other side is a minuscule minority of people. I'm not even sure it's correct to call it a minority view. It may actually be the majority view that they're not being exposed to. There's another part of here I found really interesting. That is middle school students are taught to recognize the various forms of abuse. Which of course, I mean most of this I think is just is terrific and necessary because I mean God help the middle school students who think that physical, emotional, and sexual abuse is okay. We've got to correct that.
But it also describes financial abuse, which I'm not exactly sure what that is, that may be your parents telling you, "You can't have a car," is financial abuse. Then they also mentioned spiritual abuse. It's really, what exactly do you think constitutes spiritual abuse here? Where do you think that might come out in a discussion in a classroom?
Sean McDowell: This is where it's really hard because let's face it, there has been the crisis in the Catholic Church. We've seen it in Souther Baptist Churches especially on the issue of sexuality. People have used power and position to take advantage of [crosstalk]
Scott Rae: Perfect examples of spiritual abuse.
Sean McDowell: We can't deny that. In principle I'm not opposed ... I'd almost rather call it power abuse and not single out spiritual abuse. It smacks kind of an agenda to me and maybe I'm bringing into it. Here's what it says specifically. It says, and I'll read you the quote, it says spiritual abuse includes, amongst other things, "Not allowing boyfriend or girlfriend/partner to do things they enjoy or to better themselves." Let me say it again, "Not allowing boyfriend or girlfriend/partner to do things they enjoy or to better themselves."
Would it be considered spiritually abusive for a 13-year-old girl to refuse to watch porn for spiritual reasons with her boyfriend? Because you're not allowing this person to do things they enjoy, and maybe this person says, "Well, I enjoy doing it in your presence. You are not allowing me to do it for spiritual reasons. You're making me feel guilty. You judge me. This is wrong." Now, I suspect the person will push back and go, "Well, wait a minute. That in [inaudible] also has consent so you can't force that person to violate their consent, which is filled throughout this frameworks basically the sexual standard is limited to consent."
But my point is when they start coming up with these standards and it's based upon consent on one side and then enjoyment for somebody else on the other side, and you can't prevent somebody from doing something they enjoy for spiritual reasons, there's going to be conflict that comes into play. This is where you see it. What I don't see is the idea that you know, maybe actually porn damages relationships. Do you realize this, Scott, I couldn't find it anywhere in this entire framework. You don't even need spiritual reasons for that. Just sociological, psychological, scientific reasons. That's not mentioned in here at all. To me, I'm just like wait a minute, this spiritual abuse is not clear. They're missing a huge amount of material that is a genuine health crisis.
Scott Rae: Here's what I wonder about that. If the definition you read includes "not allowing boyfriend, girlfriend, or partners to do things they enjoy or better themselves" on what basis should someone say no to the advances of a Catholic priest or a turned Baptist youth pastor who gave spiritual reasons to justify what we would call, I think, pedophilia? Wouldn't we be concerned about somebody being able to turn that definition on its head?
Sean McDowell: I think they would say well, there's not consent that is there and there is more than just this definition that is present. But it raises these kinds of conflicts that says wait a minute, what if somebody did consent to this? What if they agreed to it? What about 12-year-old girl, 17-year-old boy? That's legal so we don't have to bring the whole priest thing into it, that's actually legal if they consent, is that okay? My goodness, that age disparity and the nature of the act there's so much more going on that would be, it just, it's not covered in this, is part of my concern.
Scott Rae: Yeah, it seems like again, and I'm not reading the whole context for this but it seems like on the surface this is actually making it harder for people to say no to unwanted sexual activity, especially if it's emerging from someone's spiritual convictions.
Sean McDowell: That's right. Or if yeah, so you're the bigot, you're the one who's intolerant if you say ... Actually I think scripture teaches this and there's spiritual reasons, you could be harming somebody's self-image, you could be harming the way they feel about them. You are spiritually abusing me because you're saying this behavior is wrong. That's exactly what my concern is. I think that gets to the heart of it.
Scott Rae: Well, you know, both of us having been teenage guys before, that just could add another potential rationalization to the toolbox for people who just want to enjoy themselves really at the expense of their partner.
Sean McDowell: I think that's right. By the way, because we're running out of time, our goal here is not to tell people listening they need to pull out of public school. Our goal is to inform them and to make sure they know thoughtfully what they're doing, and to approach this in a biblical, careful, sober manner.
Scott Rae: Please read this on your own. Read Sean's blog on this. It's really helpful. We encourage you to look at the resources through Gateways to Better Education at gogateways.org that we mentioned earlier. There are lots of really good resources out there. Please, I guess our plea for parents is don't go into this blind.
Sean McDowell: That's right. And for anybody else who works with students. That's why we're doing the podcast. Pastors, just inform your congregation even if it's just sending out this podcast or another article that somebody's done. Help people be informed and educated and thoughtful. Parents, go right in there and find out what is being taught because even different principals and superintendents will apply these standards differently. Be involved, find out what's going on, and just make the best decisions for your family.
Scott Rae: This has been an episode of the podcast, Think Biblically: Conversations on Faith and Culture. If you want to learn more about us, find more episodes, go to biola.edu/thinkbiblically. That's biola.edu/thinkbiblically. If you enjoyed our conversation today, give us a rating on your podcast app and share with a friend. Thanks so much for listening and remember, think biblically about everything.