The sobering June 2013 rulings from the U.S. Supreme Court on same-sex marriage send a clear message that religious freedom in this country will face unprecedented attacks. Parents might wonder how long they can protect their children's innocence in this culture—especially when it comes to the impact on the public education system.
But there are some bright lights of hope in the midst of the darkness—like the courage of parents in Erie, Ill., a small town of about 1,500, who managed to resist a national pressure campaign waged by liberal media and one of the nation's largest homosexual activist groups.
"When parents are confident, they can do incredible things," observed Aaron Sweeney, a local youth pastor, who got involved after receiving phone calls from concerned parents. The controversy began when parents discovered plans to introduce materials from GLSEN (the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network) at their pre-kindergarten through fourth grade elementary school. Of particular concern was a toolkit that encouraged teachers to "invite students" as young as kindergarten to "draw pictures of favorite TV or storybook characters and dress them in clothes that are different …. from what they would typically wear," such as "Cinderella in a knight's armor" or "Spiderman wearing a magic tiara."
The kit also encouraged educators to use storybooks that familiarized young children with same-sex marriage and transgender or cross-dressing behaviors. Suggested books included Uncle Bobby's Wedding, which features two male guinea pigs who get married.
When parents objected, the school board voted to remove the materials. That's when the pressure campaign began. "We've never experienced anything like this," explained Sweeny at the time. "People in our town have been called insulting names by angry bloggers. They've gotten phone calls to their home and hate emails from people who don't even live here."
At first, those tactics were intimidating. But then likeminded parents drew strength from one another. One of the resources that encouraged them most was Focus' website for parents, TrueTolerance.org, explained Sweeney: "The biggest thing was the confidence boost. Before we had Focus on the Family and TrueTolerance.org there was often a defeated attitude." But then "a lot of parents looked at TrueTolerance.org, and when they did, that's when they realized we cannot only fight this, we can win this."
Not only did the parents successfully make their voices heard in a grace-filled and reasonable way, which resulted in the school board maintaining its original stance, but one of the parents who spoke up later won an election to the school board.
While stories like this might be inspiring, parents or concerned citizens can still feel overwhelmed when it comes to figuring out what's happening in their local schools. Anticipating that need, TrueTolerance.org has unveiled a new resource—a free, downloadable "Empowering Parents" how-to guide. The guide provides easy-to-use tools, including: 1) a checklist that walks parents through simple ways to begin researching their schools system, as well as red flags that could indicate a problem, and 2) tips on what to do and how to respond if parents see something of concern on the checklist.
For instance, parents can "meet resistance with facts," rather than using emotionally loaded words, advises the kit. "It's hard to dispute visual, factual examples as mere parental overreactions." Alongside tips like these are clickable and scanable links to fact sheets that can help parents express their concerns, a "Parents' Bill of Rights," as well as examples of concerning materials that can crop up in schools.
"Our main goal behind this resource—and the website itself—is to give parents, grandparents and legal guardians the message that they are not alone and they are not powerless when it comes to safeguarding their children's innocence," said Candi Cushman, director of TrueTolerance.org and Focus' education analyst. "Their voice is backed by national groups like Focus on the Family who want to help give them the confidence they need to be proactive about speaking up for their family's values."
A shorter version of this article was originally published in the September 2013 issue of Citizen magazine.