Officials: R-74 won't change lessons in school

Claims in foes' TV ad challenged by supporters, experts

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Voters in Washington and three other states are now hearing what Californians heard during that state's ballot fight over same-sex marriage: that, if approved, gay marriage could be taught at your child's school.

One difference this time around is the speed of the response from gay marriage supporters, who said they were prepared for a TV commercial that opponents started airing Monday in Washington arguing that if gay marriage is approved, "schools can teach that boys can marry boys."

Supporters of same-sex marriage responded the very same day with their own ad featuring a teacher and her husband gently reassuring parents that it's up to them to teach values at home.

Zach Silk, who is managing the campaign in support of Referendum 74 to allow gay and lesbian couples to wed, said supporters learned a lesson from 2008 ads in California. In that instance, the response from their side was seen as weak, and voters there banned same-sex marriage.

R-74 supporters also had ready criticism for their opponents' ad, which highlighted the true story of how a Massachusetts teacher read a book to second-graders about a same-sex wedding -- and which could lead voters to wrongly think R-74 changes school curriculum.

"There is absolutely nothing in R-74 or the new marriage law that will change anything at all in our schools or in our curriculum. This is a red herring," Randy Dorn, the state superintendent of public instruction, said in a statement released by R-74 supporters. Dorn said curriculum is changed locally as part of a long process involving school boards, educators and parents.

The supporters' ad, however, doesn't point out that the law would not change school curriculum -- and their opponents actually agree with the ad's main point about parents teaching values at home.

"This is a conversation that parents should be able to have at home with their kid at a time of their own choosing," said Chip White, a spokesman for the anti-R-74 effort. "Not every 6- and 7-year-old is ready to hear about a man marrying a man."

Opponents don't have evidence of a widespread trend of that happening, but they do cite the second-grade teacher in Lexington, Mass., who in 2006 read aloud a book celebrating a marriage between two princes.

Same-sex marriage is legal in Massachusetts. Washington, Maine and Maryland voters are deciding through Nov. 6 whether to follow suit, while Minnesotans are considering a ban.

Ads in all four of the deciding states show footage of parents of a child in the Lexington school, who sued along with the parents of a second-grader. The child of the couple in the ad had been given a book in kindergarten that didn't deal with marriage but that did describe different kinds of families, including those with same-sex parents. That episode also involved a dispute about whether parents had a chance to review the book in advance.

Federal courts declined to force the school to let parents opt out of such lessons or to give them advance notice.

The courts' decisions didn't hinge on Massachusetts' marriage law. But they didn't ignore it, either. Gay rights groups mentioned the law in legal briefs, and a judge wrote that the books reflected a "school system's effort to educate its students to understand and respect gays, lesbians and the families they sometimes form in Massachusetts, which recognizes same-sex marriage."

R-74 opponents' lawyers wrote in a letter to TV stations that R-74 would force lessons to conform to a new definition of marriage and that schools would be free to adopt a new curriculum to reflect the change.

Educators said curriculum wouldn't change except through a separate, public process.

"I cannot envision a circumstance under which the initiative one way or another would impact curriculum development in our school district," said University Place School Superintendent Patti Banks, who stressed she wasn't speaking for or against R-74.

To add new topics or materials to the curriculum, Banks said, the School Board would have to vote after review by an advisory committee that includes parents and teachers.