Nearly a month after Gov. Phil Murphy announced a state review of controversial, revised education standards — including sex and gender identity issues — the battle of public opinion has only intensified.

Lawmakers from both major political parties called for a pause to ensure age appropriateness before the standards were enacted in classrooms by the fall.

Lots of attention has remained on a few sample lesson plans as crafted by the progressive non-profit, Advocates for Youth.

“Rights, Respect, Responsibility is a sex education curriculum that fully meets the National Sexuality Education Standards," the Washington D.C. based group says on its website, saying of the sample curriculum “It is evidence-informed, rights-based and LGBTQ-inclusive.”

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Republican state Senators responded with a different “three Rs” proposal on April 27 — “Repeal” health education standards, “Replace” lessons on diversity and inclusion under a 2021 law, “Restore” parental control over curriculum decisions.

"It’s disappointing, though not surprising, to see conservatives approach sex education in a spirit of glib sarcasm rather than actually working for the health of New Jersey’s students,” Advocates for Youth President Debra Hauser said in a written statement.

“It’s sad to see such a forward-thinking state be pulled back into the dark ages, the victim of a misinformation campaign that has intentionally distorted what is taught in sex education and knowingly misrepresented our 3Rs curriculum,” she continued.

Opt in, opt out?

Another “r” word has become common among the push-back — refusal to believe the acting education commissioner when she was questioned at a recent budget hearing about the learning standards.

Parents already retain the right to “opt out of content related to sex education that conflicts with their moral or religious beliefs,” Acting Education Commissioner Angelica Allen-McMillan said.

At least one school district sent notice home in February, reminding guardians that they could make such a request.

Holmdel’s acting school superintendent said a signed request and a statement for excusal just needed to be sent to a student’s principal, as reported by Patch.

Heightened conflicts

Religious beliefs of students’ households clashing with what is — and is not — covered in a public school education is not by any means a new issue in New Jersey or the rest of the country.

Abstinence-only versus comprehensive sex education has been a time-worn argument within public schools since last century.

In recent years, gender identity and sexual orientation have added a few more layers to potential clashes between science-based approaches and religious beliefs that do not acknowledge those issues in the same way.

Another factor amid the widening divide is the ease with which rumors and arguments can be shared and spread on social media.

Just one Facebook group, “Team PYC - Protect Your Children - NJ OPEN TEAM” has almost 5,000 members, alone.

“Team PYC is a group of people who want to protect the children from the pending LGBT curriculum. We are parents, teachers, school board members, concerned taxpayers, mothers, fathers, church leaders, Christians, people of faith, Orthodox Jews, Muslims, and Coptic Christians,” according to the group’s description.

The Republican “three Rs” plan does not include a 2019 law to make the general school curriculum more LGBTQ inclusive in portraying historical and influential figures.

At the root of the controversy is the struggle to accommodate and acknowledge the backgrounds of more than 1.3 million students in New Jersey.

“The court has repeatedly stressed that the Constitution prohibits public schools from indoctrinating children in religion. But it is not always easy to determine exactly what constitutes indoctrination or school sponsorship of religious activities,” according to the Pew Research Center.
The 2019 Pew Center post largely refers to matters like prayer in a school setting, but also comes into play when talking about perspective on gender identity and family issues being directly informed by a family’s religious beliefs.

New Jersey encompasses progressive households of different family structures, as well as conservative, religious households which maintain a “nuclear family” view — two married parents of opposite genders and their children.

Some Republican Senators leading the push to repeal the standards have been critical of resource links on the state Department of Education’s website, under “New Jersey Student Learning Standards — Comprehensive Health and Physical Education.”

There’s objection to a link to Rutgers Answer, a national organization that “provides and promotes unfettered access to comprehensive sexuality education for young people and the adults who teach them.”

The same resource section also includes a link to the Digital Wellness Network and “Love is respect,” a project of the National Domestic Violence Hotline.

“New Jersey was among the first states to mandate sex education back in 1980. It was a bold and progressive move that was celebrated across the state,” Hauser continued.

“New Jersey also led the country during the height of the HIV epidemic, implementing innovative policies and providing HIV education to help thwart the rising rates—a model that was later emulated across the country.”

“We believe NJ’s young people deserve honest sex education. We believe they have the right to benefit from 40 years of public health research that clearly shows the protective benefits of such an education,” the Advocates for Youth president said.

With previous reporting by Michael Symons

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