Religious “opt-out” letters taking the TDSB by storm

October 15, 2012

(Photo via Stan Behal)

Numerous religious parents within the GTA have begun sending letters to public schools in Toronto, Peel, York and Durham regions, demanding to be notified if their children will be taught a variety of topics such as evolution, social acceptance of homosexuality, birth control and “environmental worship”. The initiator of this whole movement is one Steve Tourloukis, a Greek Orthodox dentist from Hamilton. Tourloukis, with the support of a group called Parental Rights in Education Defense Fund, has sued the Hamilton school board for refusing to notify him when his children’s teachers plan to talk about topics related to family, marriage or human sexuality. Tourloukis and other like-minded parents also demand the right to opt their children out of these classes.

As a double major in science, the idea that children would be opted-out of learning about evolution is particularly upsetting. According to the various websites of religious and family organizations, Creationists have an issue with the teaching of evolution in school because it is called “the theory of evolution”.

Let me clarify the definition of a scientific theory. A scientific theory is “a well-substantiated explanation of some aspect of the natural world, based on a body of facts that have been repeatedly confirmed through observation and experiment”, as stated by the National Academy of Science. Other common scientific theories include atomic theory and the theory of relativity – I don’t see anyone opting their children out of those sections in Chemistry and Physics classes.

Another common argument is the fact that scientists are still “undecided” about the theory of evolution. Actually, studies by groups such as Gallup and Newsweek estimate that 95-99.85% of earth and life scientists accept biological evolution as fact. The theory of evolution is a basic tenet of the fields of biology, anthropology and portions of psychology and medicine. Parents cannot simply opt their children out of learning about it without diminishing their future options. If my religious parents had supported Creationism and limited my knowledge of the theory of evolution, I would probably have never discovered my love of biology and, therefore, my current academic life would have been lost to me. The thought makes me shudder.

Furthermore, limiting sexual education is not only close-minded but irresponsible as well. Parents may not like it, but 45% of teenagers between the ages of 15 to 19 report having had at least one prior sexual encounter. With such a large proportion of students engaging in sexual activity, sexual education classes are a vitally important aspect of the curriculum. The opt-out letter requests that their children not be taught “a false sense of security with regard to the effectiveness of condoms in preventing the spread of sexually transmitted diseases”. This is a gross misinterpretation of the sexual education curriculum. Teachers make it very clear that condoms are not entirely safe, but they do in fact diminish the risk of pregnancy and infections. Sex-ed classes do not create hordes of emboldened, horny teenagers; they’re like that already. Rather, sexual education classes help them make informed decisions about their sexuality. While prayer can be useful for a great number of things, it is not an effective method of contraception.

Opting children out of discussions regarding homosexuality and transgenderism is just breeding bigotry and intolerance in young minds. It is easy to hate what you don’t understand, and so it is important for children to be taught that homosexuality and transgenderism are natural and nothing to be ashamed of. A child’s right to be safe within their school environment, regardless of race, gender, disability or sexual orientation, overrides the narrow-minded outcries of conservative religionists. This safety can be best ensured by educating kids from a young age about homosexuality just like we educate children that differences between races, genders and various levels of capability should not be divisive factors.

One of the more troublesome aspects of this whole letter is stated at the very of end of the document, which stipulates that the child in question not be approached for consent to participate in any of the above activities. If a teacher recognizes that a child may be grappling with their sexual orientation, the opt-out letter takes away their ability to reach out to these at-risk youths and invite them to participate in classes regarding homosexuality. This potential alienation of LGBT students from religious households is a serious issue which presents yet another hazard to the safety of these children.

Taking children out of the classes for reasons that I have outlined above can present a genuine risk to the child’s education and the well-being of children around them. So while parents certainly have the right to take an active role in their children’s education, teachers have a greater responsibility to protect their students. The “opt-out” policy must be opposed to ensure that school remains a safe and open learning environment where young minds can grow.