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Parents Cast Fight as Sexual vs. Religious Tolerance

A Massachusetts father is a hero to people angry at what they call schools' 'gay agenda.'

October 20, 2005|Stephanie Simon | Times Staff Writer

LEXINGTON, Mass. — David and Tonia Parker are asking their neighbors in this liberal town for one consideration:

Tolerance.

The Parkers believe homosexuality is immoral. So they were appalled when their son brought a picture book home from kindergarten that showed families with same-sex parents.

To ensure his "spiritual safety," they demanded the right to pull him out of class whenever homosexuality was discussed.

To deny them that right, they say, would be intolerant of their faith.

School administrators offer a different take on tolerance.

They say it's their job to expose children to the world's diversity.

Supt. Paul B. Ash refuses to whisk the Parkers' son away if a classmate with same-sex parents brings a family photo for show-and-tell, or a lesbian couple volunteers at the Halloween party.

Similar debates have roiled communities across the nation as conservative parents challenge classes, books and after-school activities that they say promote a one-sided view of homosexuality as normal. They have notched victories in several states.

But the dispute here has gone further than most.

David Parker has been banned from school property. Ash has been flooded with hate mail from across the country. There have been protests and counter-protests; the local newspaper received so many letters, many condemning the Parkers as bigots that the editor stopped printing them.

Ash talks of the school's obligation "to be more than tolerant" to children and parents of all backgrounds.

Parker asks: Where's the tolerance for him?

"Real respect, real tolerance, is not pushing your beliefs on other people," Parker said. "What people do in their bedroom, that's their business. What they tell my children in school about these subjects -- that's my business."

Parker, 43, was so upset at the response to his demand that he refused to leave after a meeting with administrators at Joseph Estabrook School in April.

Police arrested him. Parker declined to post bail and spent the night in jail; his trespassing trial is set for today. For now, the district has banned him from school property.

Parker has become a celebrity among social conservatives dedicated to fighting what they call "the gay agenda" in schools.

That movement is gaining steam, partly because polls indicate that teenagers are much more likely than the public at large to favor same-sex marriages and gay adoptions. Some conservatives see that as alarming proof that public schools are "indoctrinating" children.

They blame events such as the Day of Silence, when students in thousands of middle and high schools remain silent to express solidarity with gay and lesbian classmates. They also protest what they see as subtler messages, such as library books featuring gay and lesbian characters.

Several websites offer parents advice for challenging neutral or positive material about gays and lesbians in schools. One tip: Demand equal time for presentations from "ex-gays" who have gone straight. Another: Assert that homosexuality is not a valid example of diversity because it's a lifestyle choice, not an inborn trait.

Using such tactics, parents in Montgomery County, Md., recently blocked a health curriculum that allowed teachers to initiate discussions of homosexuality. In Lawton, Okla., parents stopped plans for a student Gay-Straight Alliance.

The Parkers say they never expected to be on the front line of this cultural war.

They moved here a year and a half ago, when Parker's company relocated his division from New Jersey. (He declined to give his firm's name or his job description out of fear of bringing the controversy into his workplace.)

This town of 30,000, about 10 miles northwest of Boston, is overwhelmingly liberal. In the 2004 election, Sen. John F. Kerry won 72% of the vote here; four years earlier, Al Gore took 64%.

Still, the Parkers said they did not feel out of place with their conservative social values. They hung a cross by the front door, and settled in, delighted with the kindergarten curriculum.

But on Jan. 17, their son brought home a "diversity tote bag." (It was supposed to be an optional activity, but Tonia, 36, said she never saw a notice telling parents they could choose not to participate.)

The tote held recipes for ethnic dishes, puppets with varying shades of skin -- and the book "Who's in a Family?," which includes a picture of a lesbian couple washing a poodle with their children. By presenting households with same-sex parents as a normal family grouping, David Parker said, the school "disenfranchises" anyone who holds opposing values.

His adversaries respond that far more people would be hurt if Parker's demands were met.

Imagine, they say, how bewildered a child of same-sex parents would feel if a classmate had to be escorted from the room whenever she mentioned her family. Imagine how her parents would feel if they had to take turns attending class events to avoid being seen as a couple.

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