It was supposed to be a 90-minute excursion, a noontime field trip for a group of San Francisco charter school students and their parents to see the kids’ lesbian teacher marry her partner in a wedding performed by Mayor Gavin Newsom.
But after the event was reported in the San Francisco Chronicle and picked up by cable television and the Internet, the first-graders at Creative Arts Charter School found themselves at the center of the hottest battle in the campaign over gay marriage: the question of whether failure to pass Proposition 8 would result in widespread classroom discussions of same-sex unions.
Supporters of the constitutional amendment, under which marriage would be defined as only between a man and a woman, contend that if Proposition 8 does not pass, gay marriage will be taught in public schools. “We are already seeing that happen,” said Frank Schubert, campaign manager for Yes on 8.
The opposing side insists that this is fear-mongering and notes that there is no mention of schools or curriculum in the language of the proposition.
“They just made something up in order to scare people and change the subject,” said Shannon Minter, legal director for the National Center for Lesbian Rights.
To buttress their case, Proposition 8 supporters point to a legal decision out of Massachusetts, where same-sex couples have been able to wed since 2004. After a second-grade teacher in Lexington read a book to her students that included two princes marrying, the parents of a child in the class sued the school district.
The parents, devout Christians who oppose gay marriage, contended that the teacher had read the book to her class “for the express purpose of indoctrinating them into the concept that homosexuality and marriage between same-sex partners is moral.” This, they said, intruded on their “right to direct the moral upbringing of their own children.”
A federal court dismissed the case, finding it without merit, and earlier this month, the U.S. Supreme Court refused to hear an appeal of the dismissal, letting the lower court’s ruling stand.
The child’s parents will be featured in a new Proposition 8 ad that will begin airing this week.
School districts and the California Department of Education, meanwhile, are getting a steady stream of calls from the media and parents wanting to know whether gay marriage will be taught in schools if Proposition 8 is defeated.
The answer, it turns out, is slightly more complicated than can be captured in the 30-second television advertisements put out by both sides.
There is nothing in the state education code that requires schools to teach anything about marriage. Even the decision about whether to offer comprehensive sex education is left up to individual school districts.
What state law does require is that districts that offer sex education “teach respect for marriage and committed relationships.”
Districts have taken different approaches.
The Los Angeles Unified School District offers ninth-graders a “Life Skills” class that deals with a variety of issues, including personal identity and relationships. A district spokeswoman said marriage is not a specific part of that curriculum but could come up as part of classroom discussion.
In Fresno, meanwhile, district policy is that teachers do not address the subject of gay marriage in the classroom; students who ask about it are told to raise the issue with their families, according to district officials.
Hilary McLean, spokeswoman for Jack O’Connell, the state superintendent of public instruction, said she was unaware of any district that had changed its curriculum as a result of the California Supreme Court’s May ruling allowing same-sex marriage.
Still, recognizing how politically potent the issue is, the Yes on 8 campaign has made it the center of its television advertising campaign.
“Mom, guess what I learned in school today?” a little girl says in one spot. “I learned how a prince married a prince.”
As the girl’s mother makes a horrified face, a voice says: “Think it can’t happen? It’s already happened. . . . Teaching about gay marriage will happen unless we pass Proposition 8.”
In response, the No on 8 side put out an ad called “Proponents of Proposition 8 Are Using Lies to Scare You.”
As television screens flicker Big Brother-like in the background, a voice says: “Prop. 8 will not affect teaching in schools.”
To counter that, the Yes on 8 side issued a blast e-mail last week titled, “Who Is Really Lying,” which accused the No on 8 side of wanting gay marriage to be taught “at the youngest possible age.”
In San Francisco, Newsom said he didn’t know the schoolchildren would be attending their teacher’s wedding, and a spokesman for the mayor said he does not endorse the idea of children leaving school to go to weddings -- no matter who is getting married.
“First-graders should be in class during the day,” said Nathan Ballard, communications director for Newsom.