Never discuss sex, politics or religion in polite conversation, an old saying goes. But that maxim was largely ignored at the House Health and Insurance Committee hearing yesterday, January 30, during a discussion about a bill concerning sex education in public schools.
Hundreds gathered to discuss the bill, which would incentivize Colorado public schools to develop comprehensive sex education programs. Public schools across the state teach abstinence-only sex education, even though it is against Colorado law to do so. The new bill would offer financial incentives to schools willing to switch to comprehensive sex education curriculum that would include lessons about abstinence, contraception, consent and healthy relationships.
Following the ten-hour-plus hearing, the House committee voted 7 to 4 along party lines in favor of the bill.
Testimony was extreme at times. One opponent of the bill offered a graphic account of a sexual act called fisting, implying that comprehensive sex education would teach kids about specific sexual acts. Opponents also consistently spoke about homosexuality and transgenderism as ideologies and not as something innate.
Jeff Hunt, vice president of public policy at the conservative Colorado Christian University, said the "bill seeks to specifically ban family values from being taught. ... The truth is that the vast majority of Coloradans understand sexuality within confines of a religious worldview."
A testy exchange between a Catholic priest opposing the bill and Representative Brianna Titone, the first transgender representative in the state, seemed to take the audience by surprise. "As a Catholic priest, are you abstaining from sex?" Titone asked, garnering gasps and boos from the opposing crowd. Titone continued: "You seem to be an expert on the topic. How did you become an expert on the topic?" The priest quickly shot back: "I hear confessions."
But support also came in waves. Students who learned sex education in abstinence-only programs told committee members they would have benefited from comprehensive sex education. One supporter of the bill brought up a Planned Parenthood survey in which 89 percent of participants believed sex education in middle school is “very” or “somewhat" important. That number jumped up to 98 percent for sex education in high school.
Representatives from the ACLU of Colorado, Planned Parenthood of the Rocky Mountains, the Colorado Education Association and the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment, among other organizations, including religious ones such as the Colorado Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice, said they supported the bill. The Colorado Department of Education said it was neutral on the bill, even though it opposed legislation from 2013 related to comprehensive sex education.
Although multiple news outlets have been reporting that the Comprehensive Human Sexuality Education bill would ban abstinence-only sex education in Colorado public schools, the reality is a bit more complicated.
Legislation passed in 2013 already mandates that any public school in Colorado that teaches sex education must do so with a focus on comprehensive sex ed; that same legislation created a grant to fund such programs. But the grant was left unfunded, since the bill prohibited state money from going toward the development of sex education programs at public schools.
This new bill, co-sponsored by representatives Susan Lontine and Yadira Caraveo and senators Nancy Todd and Don Coram, would establish a more than $1 million annual grant for CDPHE to dole out to schools that want to establish a comprehensive sex education curriculum. The grant would prioritize rural schools and schools that don't already have comprehensive sex education. A school may also choose to not offer any sex education. And per existing law, parents will continue to receive advanced notice before their children start any sex education course and be able to opt their kids out with a signed note. The bill will head to the House for a full vote.
Similar to the one passed in 2013, the new bill won't penalize schools that continue to teach abstinence-only sex ed, even though it is against the law to have such a curriculum. Lizzy Hinkley, reproductive-rights policy counsel at ACLU of Colorado, says that's intentional.
"We're trying to incentivize schools with a carrot... . We’re not trying to call out any school districts, and we’re not trying to go after them," Hinkley says. "We just want the ones who are interested to come to CDPHE and apply for money so they can teach comprehensive sex ed."