Maryland's largest school district system has become a battleground over what students should be taught about sex and a symbol, some supporters of the new curriculum said, of the increasing influence the conservative movement is hoping to play in public school classrooms.
Five months after the Montgomery County Board of Education approved a new approach to teaching students about homosexuality and condom use, a federal judge put a 10-day hold on implementation of the program, which allowed teachers to initiate discussions with eighth-graders about homosexuality and included a video for 10th-graders on how to put on a condom.
School Superintendent Jerry D. Weast announced he was suspending the program, which was set to begin at six county schools this week.
The move was cheered by two groups that sued to block the program: Citizens for a Responsible Curriculum, and Parents and Friends of Ex-Gays and Gays. The groups have said they are eager to work with the school system on a new version of the curriculum.
But others in the community said they are fearful that the school system is retreating from its efforts to teach students about the dangers of unprotected sex and the importance of tolerance for those of different sexual orientations.
This was a fight that few expected would break out in what many view as a progressive, liberal-leaning county.
"It looks like we're in Kansas after all. I'm appalled. I'm appalled," said Charlotte Fremaux, a parent leader at Bethesda-Chevy Chase High School, one of six campuses that was to be a pilot site for the sex-ed lessons. "Next, they'll be challenging evolution."
But those who have followed the battle over sex education over the years said people should not have been surprised.
"It's not an anomaly to have these conflicts break out in liberal, well-to-do school districts," said Janice Irvine, a sociology professor at the University of Massachusetts and author of a book that traces the history of sex education. "In those districts, folks are often shocked, but really it only takes a handful of parents to start what can become a bitter and quite divisive campaign."
The new sex education program, approved by the board in November, was designed with the intent of promoting tolerance among students and of giving them more information so they could be better informed about making decisions about having sex. The most significant changes were at the eighth-grade level, where teachers would have been allowed to initiate discussions about homosexuality, and at the 10th-grade level, where students would have watched a seven-minute video that included information on how to put on a condom.
The program was the product of more than three years of work by a 27-member committee that included parents, teachers, students and other community members, including several people affiliated with churches as well as a representative from the Washington area chapter of Parents, Families and Friends of Lesbians and Gays and PFOX.
The opponents contended that discussions about homosexuality were unbalanced because curriculum materials did not include information about the "risks" of such a lifestyle and did not allow "ex-gays" to share their viewpoints. They said that though the "Protect Yourself" video discussed condoms, it did not note the dangers associated with anal and oral sex.
U.S. District Judge Alexander Williams Jr., made clear in his opinion, however, that learning about sex would not encourage students to engage in sex.
"It would require more than a few logical leaps for this Court to find that MCPS students presented with the Revised Curriculum would suddenly choose to engage in promiscuous, unprotected, homosexual sex," he said.
At the same time, the judge said he was disturbed by references to specific religious denominations in the teachers' guide and what he characterized as a one-sided portrayal of homosexuality.
Montgomery County school officials said that they have only begun to reexamine the revised curriculum and that it is too early to say what elements will be included in revisions.
Irvine said conservatives have become emboldened by today's political climate, including the current debate over evolution and creationism in Kansas.
"We have a lot of different things happening at this moment,'' she said. "We've had a growing political Christian right movement that since the 1960s has used sex-ed as an important battleground, and that movement has only gotten stronger and stronger with [President] Bush's reelection."
Opponents of the program said they don't want to be characterized as a religious fringe.
"We really feel we represent the mainstream,'' said John Garza, the group's attorney and vice president.
The group has received help from Erik Stanley, chief counsel for Liberty Counsel, a Florida-based nonprofit organization known for his involvement in the Terri Schiavo case, and for litigating same-sex marriage and Ten Commandments cases around the nation. Stanley argued on behalf of the two groups in federal court last week.
The group that battled the Montgomery school board evolved over several months, from an effort to recall board members into a more consciously moderate organization intent on alerting parents to portions of the new curriculum it deemed objectionable. Given Montgomery's political reputation, few expected the groups to prevail.
"All we hear is how liberal Montgomery County is. There's actually quite a few conservatives in the county," said Laura Quigley, who has children at middle and high schools in Gaithersburg. "And all along, we've thought this was more than a liberal-conservative issue. It's a parent issue."