Mandatory sex education expected to spark fracas

State Rep. Patricia Smith Show caption
State Rep. Patricia Smith

Catholic bishops already speaking against proposal

A bill that would require sex education instruction in public schools, which has ignited controversy since 2010, is expected to do so again this year.

“It is important that we give our children medically factual information so that they can make the right decision,” said state Rep. Patricia Smith, D-Baton Rouge, and sponsor of the measure, House Bill 369.

The lack of mandatory instruction now is “really a form of child abuse,” Smith said.

Opponents disagree.

The associate director of the Louisiana Conference of Catholic Bishops, Rob Tasman, said his group has a strong interest in the bill because most students who are Catholic attend public schools.

Tasman said sex education instruction in public schools “can lead to moral relativism, teaching the topic purely from a naturalistic perspective or something that bolsters the contraceptive mentality.”

He said in Catholic schools the topic “is infused with a strong sense of morality.”

Under existing law, sex education in public schools is legal but not required.

Under Smith’s proposal, elementary and secondary schools would be required to offer “age appropriate” instruction on human sexuality, the health benefits, side effects and proper use of approved contraceptives and lessons to help students “make responsible decisions about sexuality and relationships.”

If the plan becomes law, schools are supposed to teach that abstinence is the most reliable way to avoid pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases.

“No part of sex education instruction shall in any way advocate or support abortion,” the bill says.

Students could be excused from the classes on the written request of a parent or guardian.

Specific grades for instruction are not spelled out.

Smith said the bill may be amended to begin the instruction for students in upper elementary classrooms.

The state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education, with input from officials of the state Department of Education, would be in charge of developing curricula and teaching materials.

BESE opposed the bill two years ago.

Smith said Louisiana’s high rate of chlamydia, gonorrhea and syphilis all venereal diseases demands action.

“Teen pregnancy has gone down but is still sixth in the nation,” she said.

When the bill will be heard in the Louisiana House Education Committee is unclear.

This year’s debate marks the fourth session that the Baton Rouge lawmaker has tried to pass such a law.

In 2010 Smith demanded a change in House rules after a sealed flier was left on the desks of some lawmakers with a condom attached. The fliers said “Compliments of Rep. Pat Smith’s Sex Education Bill HB529.”

The bill died in the House 23-67.

In 2012 a bill similar to this year’s proposal failed in the House Education Committee on an 8-8 vote, one short of the majority needed.

A few days later the same plan failed 9-9, with three Republicans joining six Democrats in favor of the effort.

Smith criticized House Education Committee Chairman Steve Carter, R-Baton Rouge, who cast the final “no” vote after siding with Smith in the previous tally.

She said Carter was pressured by Gov. Bobby Jindal’s office, which opposed the legislation.

Carter denied the accusation and said at the time that he simply changed his mind.

He said Friday that he is unsure how he will vote this time.

Smith said she thinks her biggest obstacles will be renewed opposition from Jindal’s office and the Louisiana Family Forum, which calls itself a promoter of traditional family values.

In a prepared statement, Jindal noted that his office has opposed similar bills in the past and will do so again.

“These are decisions that are best made by parents and local communities, not state government,” the statement says.

Gene Mills, president of the Louisiana Family Forum, did not return a call for comment.

Mills said in a prepared statement that his group backs the current rules, which allows sex education to be taught in public schools “in an academic context with an emphasis on abstaining for sexual activity.

“Rep. Smith believes sex among teens is inevitable and we think it’s avoidable,” Mills said in his statement. “Abstinence works every time.”

Smith offered a different view.

“Sex ed does promote abstinence,” she said. “It’s a major piece. It is not the only piece.”