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Wednesday, September 8, was this year's second and last public hearing on the health textbooks by the Texas State Board of Education (SBOE). One can visit the Texas Education Agency's website for a transcript. The Texas State Board is scheduled to vote on the textbooks on Friday, November 5.

The stakes in this hearing, in the one that was held on July14, and in the final vote scheduled for November 5 (just three days after the US presidential election) are seen by many as a struggle between science and ideology--in this case, between medically accurate information that can help ensure the health of US youth and evasions that quietly defer to the puritanical fantasies of the religious right. Texas is the second largest textbook market, and the Texas State Board, which votes on the textbooks that can be taught in the state's public schools, essentially serve as gatekeepers. In the attempt to cater to the Bible Belt, publishers sometimes are willing to hedge on, if not disregard, empirically proven findings.rn rnThis year, with the delicate subject of sexuality on the SBOE agenda, publishers of three textbooks have decided to drop any references to contraception, whether it be for birth control or for preventing the spread of sexually transmitted diseases (STDs), which include, but which are far from limited to, the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) that enables Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome (AIDS). Such evasions risk providing students with information that is both misleading and dangerous. The textbook proposed by Holt, Rinehart & Winston, for example, suggests that students "get plenty of rest" to avoid STDs. "When you're tired," it cautions, "it's hard to think." Worse, since the first public hearing on July 14, textbooks have now been revised to deny the effectiveness of even protected sex in preventing the spread of these diseases.rn rnIn a July 28th press release, Dan Quinn, Communications Director of the Texas Freedom Network, reported, "Documents released by the Texas Education Agency (TEA) reveal that publishers have agreed to make reckless new changes to their proposed high school health textbooks. One publisher even equates unprotected and protected sex, calling both 'high-risk behaviors' for acquiring sexually transmitted diseases (STDs).rn rn"The changes came at the insistence of state review panelists who evaluated the textbooks in June. The panelists included teachers, parents and other Texas citizens who are not experts in science, medicine or health education.rn rn" 'Replacing no information about sex education in the textbooks with bad information will have dangerous consequences for Texas teenagers,' said Samantha Smoot, president of the Texas Freedom Network. 'To raise responsible, healthy adults, families need the most accurate and reliable information possible, not dangerously misleading facts.'rn rn"Glencoe/McGraw-Hillagreed to change in its Glencoe Health book a list of behaviors that place people at high risk for STDs. The passage (on page 649) had included, 'Engaging in unprotected sex.' The new passage now reads, 'Engaging in either unprotected or protected sex.'"

'Glencoe's change contradicts established medical research,' said Janet P. Realini, M.D., M.P.H., chair of the Texas Medical Association's Committee on Maternal and Perinatal Health. Dr. Realini is also coordinator for Project WORTH, the city of San Antonio's teen-pregnancy prevention program. 'The change would also endanger teens by discouraging efforts to protect themselves from HIV/AIDS and other STDs.' "Dr. Realini also said Glencoe failed to correct a part of the same passage stating that barrier protection 'is not effective at all' against humanpapillomavirus (HPV). Some HPV strains can cause cervical cancer. 'Condom use reduces the risk of HPV diseases such as genital warts and cervical cancer,' she said. Dr. Realini pointed out the textbook's error at a July 14 hearing before the State Board of Education (SBOE). [See pages 56 through 64 of the July hearing's transcript.] "The federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention also notes the importance of latex condoms in preventing STDs, especially HIV: 'Latex condoms, when used consistently and correctly, are highlyeffective inrnpreventing the transmission of HIV, the virus that causes AIDS.' [That section of the Centers' website was last updated on January 23, 2003. Since then, the federal agency has also been subject to political interference.] "Holt, Rinehart and Winston also made changes to its textbook, Lifetime Health. Holt added more information about the effectiveness of abstinence in preventing unwanted pregnancy and STDs. Yet Holt added nothing about the effectiveness and ineffectiveness of barrier protection and other contraceptive methods. The Holt and two Glencoe textbooks, Glencoe Health and Health and Wellness, still lack this basic information. The information is required by Texas Essential Knowledge and Skills (TEKS) curriculum standard 7i. "Thomson/Delmar Learning added nine substantial references to abstinence in its textbook, Essentials of Health and Wellness. Delmar Learning also added information about the effectiveness of condoms and oral contraception." Up until the November vote by the SBOE, Quinn noted, "publishers may make additional changes to the books."rn rnQuinn also reported, "TFN, Planned Parenthood and other organizations have joined together in the Protect Our Kids campaign for responsible health textbooks." In contrast with the July hearing, the hearing on September 8 had a noticeable attendance of right-wing Christian supporters of the textbooks, many of whom were wearing "Abstinence Only" stickers. Most prominent among them were members of the Irving-based Texans for Life Coalition, a fundamentalist group known mostly for its opposition to abortion. (Fellow atheist Amanda Walker, who used to work at an abortion clinic, remembers that group among the religious protesters who shouted that Jesus hated her and her co-workers.) Also opposed to information on contraceptives, the group is basically the antithesis of the strictly secular and medically accurate Planned Parenthood. At the September hearing, the most bizarre, if also quite revealing, moment came with the appearance of a citizen by the name of Jack Ripley, who offered his testimony in the form of a prayer (pages 209 through 211 of the transcript). He said, "Dear Infinite, All-Powerful God of All Creation, I come before Your throne today in the awesome name of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Heavenly Father, I pray. I come before You and ask Your forgiveness and seek Your direction and guidance. I know Your word says 'woe to those who call evil good,' but that is exactly what we have done as a nation. We have lost our spiritual equilibrium and inverted our values." He then went on to say, "We have endorsed perversion and called it an alternate lifestyle. We have exploited the poor and called it lottery. We have neglected the needy and called it self-preservation. We have awarded laziness and called it welfare. We have killed our unborn and called it choice. We have shot abortionists and called it justifiable. We have neglected to discipline our children and called it building esteem. We have abused power and called it political savvy. We have coveted our neighbor's possessions and called it ambition. We have polluted the air with profanity and pornography and called it freedom of expression. We have ridiculed the time-honored values of our forefathers and called it Enlightenment."

Ripley was received warmly by the religious conservatives at the hearing, even eliciting at least one "Amen" from the crowd.

Meeting with an even more sympathetic reception from the fundamentalists was Angel Bell, a high-school junior from Waco, who described herself as a Christian raised by clergy (pages 195 through 197 of the transcript). She said, "[W]hen people say that you should include condoms in these textbooks, I know my father, being a pastor that he is, would not want me to know about condoms and pretty much so that I don't want to sit up in a classroom with a banana trying to put a condom on it. That is not something that I think we should have in school. A banana is to eat and not to demonstrate something like that on." Explaining how she earlier described her stance to someone else, she recollected that she had "said, 'If they're going to do that, they might as well tell them to go ahead and read this Playboy and have fun in classroom,' because that's how lewd and nasty they were. Promoting masturbation and all types of things like that, stuff that I particularly do not believe in, and if a teacher handed me a book like this, I would hand it right back to her and tell her you need some help if you're going to teach this type of thing."

Fortunately, other people relied on science and reason instead of religiously based morality, but they tended to receive fewer questions from the Texas State Board. Also, fewer people in the audience were willing to cheer them on.

Among the people testifying in the name of medical accuracy was Dr. Gordon Crofoot, medical director of the Montrose Clinic in Houston, who in July had attended the International AIDS Conference in Bangkok (pages 82 through 85 of the transcript). At the September hearing, Dr. Crofoot said, "The South, including Texas, has the highest rates of poverty, the worst education statistics, the worst health care statistics, the slowest decline in teen pregnancies, an increase in all STDs and AIDS. The South has increasing abstinence-only educational programs, and decreasing condom use. This is our reality.

"These textbooks do not meet the criteria and are factually and scientifically incorrect in what they say, but their major fault is in what they don't say and the resulting consequences.

"Young people are both our greatest hope for our future, but also our most threatened.

"I have learned through my patients and thousands of scientific studies that fear-based abstinence-only programs are kind of like the Texas father with a shotgun. They don't really work. Abstinence until marriage in theory is 100 percent effective, but in reality fails 88 percent of the time. Condoms in the laboratory are 100 percent effective in preventing viral and sperm transmission, but in life with appropriate education failed only 3 percent of the time. The greatest risk in the world for HIV is being female. The major risks in women are poverty, youth, and being married. "I agree with most of the countries in our world, most of our scientists, public health experts, most religions, 93 percent of our parents. I agree with the United Nations, the American Medical Association, the Texas Department of Public Health. I agree with the past 30 years of the FDA [Food and Drug Administration], CDC [Centers for Disease Control and Prevention], and NIH [National Institutes of Health]. We all say a comprehensive sex-education program including abstinence is essential for the health of our youth.

"The estimated direct yearly cost to Texans for new teen STDs, HIV, and pregnancy is $1.6 billion. 100 percent abstinence programs [that is, those focused exclusively on abstinence] at best do not affect the incidents of STDs or pregnancies and at worst increased both. If we do nothing, the direct cost over the next 10 years could $10.6 billion. Comprehensive sex-education programs might reduce this cost by 50 percent.rn rn"Can Texas afford this cost? Can Texas afford to support our unwed teen mothers on welfare? Can Texas afford to see our youth get sick? The answer is easy. For you [the members of the SBOE], the answer is obvious. Just say no to these textbooks and [to] 100 percent abstinence programs."rn rnAt the conclusion of his testimony, Dr. Crofoot received no questions from the Texas State Board.rn rnYet at a press conference the day before the hearing, on Tuesday, September 7, the Protect Our Kids campaign announced a new poll that showed 90 percent of Texans in favor of sex education that includes medically accurate information on abstinence, birth control and the prevention of sexually transmitted diseases. "Publishers and a few State Board members mistakenly think sex education is controversial or somehow political," said Austin parent Susan Moffat. "But parents know better. Parents know that making sure our kids have the most accurate and reliable information is the best protection we have for raising safe, healthy, responsible adults."rn rnWith both hearings concluded, the Texas State Board was scheduled to vote on Friday, November 5. In the meantime, the Protect Our Kids campaign asked Texans to write their State Board of Education member and insist that the textbooks fully conform to state curriculum standards on contraception and the prevention of STDs, including HIV. More information can be found at the Texas Education Agency's website and at ProtectOurKids.comA follow-up account regarding the Texas State Board's vote on November 5 can be found at this website.

Wednesday, July 14, was this year's first public hearing on the health textbooks by the Texas State Board of Education (SBOE). One can visit the Texas Education Agency's website for a transcript. The Texas State Board is scheduled to vote on the textbooks on Friday, November 5.

The stakes in this hearing, in the one on September 8, and in the final vote scheduled for November 5 (just three days after the US presidential election) are seen by many as a struggle between science and ideology--in this case, between medically accurate information that can help ensure the health of US youth and evasions that quietly defer to the puritanical fantasies of the religious right.

Texas is the second largest textbook market, and the Texas State Board, which votes on the textbooks that can be taught in the state's public schools, essentially serve as gatekeepers. In the attempt to cater to the Bible Belt, publishers sometimes are willing to hedge on, if not disregard, empirically proven findings.

This year, with the delicate subject of sexuality on the SBOE agenda, publishers of three textbooks decided to drop any references to contraception, whether it be for birth control or for preventing the spread of sexually transmitted diseases (STDs), which include, but which are far from limited to, the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) that enables Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome (AIDS). (This information is supposedly included in "supplemental" materials, but those are not subject to approval by the SBOE; it is also not clear whether students will necessarily see the supplements.) Such evasions risk providing students with information that is both misleading and dangerous. The textbook proposed by Holt, Rinehart & Winston, for example, suggests that students "get plenty of rest" to avoid STDs. "When you're tired," it cautions, "it's hard to think."rn(The source of that advice, a Texas doctor by the name of Joe McIlhaney, Jr., came under fire by the Texas Department of Health for asserting that condoms do not prevent the spread of STDs. Interestingly enough, a fellow Texan, George W. Bush, appointed him to the President's Advisory Council on HIV/AIDS.)

The state's own health-education standards require that information on contraceptives and their degrees of effectiveness receive both attention and careful analysis in textbooks. Unfortunately, some publishers are shirking their responsibilities.

In an editorial ("Condom information vital to student's health," July 4), The Austin American-Statesman argues, "Parents and others should send publishers a message by telling their local school officials not to buy the three books that omit information on condoms, should the State Board of Education approve them later this year. Health professionals should also weigh in on the books: 'Health' by Glencoe-McGraw-Hill; 'Health and Wellness' by Glencoe-McGraw-Hill; and [the aforementioned] 'Lifetime Health' by Holt, Rinehart & Winston.

"Just one book contains a brief discussion of condoms, 'Essentials of Health and Wellness', by Thomas Delmar Learning. It might be better to keep old health books now in use because they contain detailed information about abstinence and condoms. The $20 million the state plans to spend on new books could be put to better use, such as programs aimed at keeping students in school.

"In the long term, the [Texas State] Legislature must revoke the authority of the education board to choose textbooks. It's now clear that limiting its authority--as the Legislature did in 1995 to prevent textbook wars over ideology--wasn't enough. Social conservative board members--all Republican--opened loopholes in the law large enough to drive through 18-wheelers. Those loopholes are being used to circumvent state standards for the health textbooks in question."

The testimony at the July 14th hearing was overwhelmingly against the proposed textbooks, with health educators, medical experts, concerned parents and children, and even liberal clergy among the opposition. Few, if any, explicitly religious proponents of the textbooks spoke at this hearing, though representatives of the ultra-right Texas Justice Foundation presented views virtually indistinguishable from the religious right, as did SBOE member Terri Leo, from District 6, representing a portion of Harris County.

A stunning highlight in the hearing was an appearance by Frisco-based attorney Bernard Kaye, a dissenting member of the panel that reviewed the textbooks for the SBOE (pages 32 through 43 of the transcript). "I was in that room for a week," he said. "And I saw what went on. And I objected to the textbook that my group okayed because I was outvoted two to one. And one has to get on with life. But I immediately reserved a place at this proceeding." Kaye said, "I am ashamed of what is not in those books and what they do not cover. I don't claim that putting these things in the books will cure the birth-rate problem amongst unwed teenagers, but it may just help. And certainly not putting it in is not going to help. We have people come up and say, well, parents want no discussion of this. Some parents do want no discussion; others want the discussion. And then we had one person come up and say, well, this is what the White House wants. At the risk of offending everyone . . . what that man in the White House thinks about the sexual education of my grandchildren in Texas doesn't interest me one bit. . . . How dare he interfere. How dare he interfere to get the vote." A less surprising, but also informative, highlight was the appearance of Samantha Smoot, executive director of the Texas Freedom Network, an organization opposed to the religious right in this state (pages 130 through 146 of the transcript). She said, "What matters is: Do these four books meet the Texas curriculum? And I think it is quite, quite clear that they don't. And on behalf of our 17,000 members, I hope you will not vote to approve these books until they contain this lifesaving information." When asked by SBOE member Cynthia Thornton (District 10, which covers, among other places, Travis County) about the publishers' supplements that provide information about the effectiveness of condoms that the textbooks themselves lack, Smoot said, "The information has been segregated into supplements that are separate from the student edition, separate from the teacher editions. That information does not count for your purposes. It has not been submitted. It has--it is not over there. It has not been submitted. Legally, it doesn't count. Now, the publishers--we are not paying for it, either. I mean it comes free with the book to the building or to the teacher. And I know you have spent many years in a classroom. And you know that these kinds of things may end up in the cloak room gathering dust, that it makes it more complicated for the teacher, that these are soft cover. They are not durable. They are going to fall apart. But more to the point, the reason that they put items in a supplement is so that a teacher who is uncomfortable, a superintendent who is uncomfortable, or even a State Board of Education member who is uncomfortable can look the other way because it is not really in the book. And again, I would come back to, if multiplication is important enough to be in the Texas curriculum, it is important enough to be in the math book. And the same thing is true for this lifesaving information."

A little more unexpected was an exchange between Smoot and SBOE member David Bradley from District 7 in Southeast Texas. Bradley, firmly aligned with the religious right, suggested the current round of hearings as a rematch of sorts following the SBOE's vote last year in favor of biology textbooks that discussed evolution with no mention of the rearticulated version of creationism known as "intelligent design." At the conclusion of her testimony this year, he asked Smoot, "You remember our conversation at the end of the biology series. Remember out there in the hall?"

Smoot replied, "I remember it well. I remember when you told me how the vote was going to go down. And then you looked at me and you said, 'But next year, we get to talk about sex,' and you laughed."

Again, the next and last public hearing was held on Wednesday, September 8, before the final vote on Friday, November 5. For more information, one can visit the Texas Education Agency's website or check out this website's follow-up accounts on September hearing and the final vote.

On Friday, June 25, the Atheist Community of Austin returned to MonkeyWrench Books to celebrate the 35th Anniversary of the Stonewall uprising, historically seen as the beginning of the modern gay movement, when drag queens and their supporters resisted a police raid of a gay bar in Greenwich Village known as the Stonewall Inn for two consecutive nights, June 27-28, 1969. (The event also could have been called "Lawrence v. Texas 1," as the next day, June 26, was the first anniversary of the Supreme Court decision that decriminalized private homosexual conduct between consenting adults.) We used the occasion to acknowledge acclaimed author and fellow atheist Gore Vidal, a major figure in gay history both before and after the historic rebellion, and a noted critic of religious extremism, particularly its attempts to constrain human freedom, thought and pleasure. At our event, we screened a controversial movie adaptation of Vidal's novel, Myra Breckinridge (1970), a camp classic starring both Raquel Welch and Rex Reed in the title role, and featuring none other than Mae West in a legendary comeback. The screening drew familiar faces as well as new people, who had the chance to hear about ACA's activities and goals. Also, three of them officially joined ACA as members for the first time that night. ACA thanks all of those who attended the event or told others about it, and especially thanks MonkeyWrench Books both for use of the venue and for assistance with the publicity. The store, a volunteer organization run by a collective, is located at 110 E. North Loop (aka 53rd St., just west of Avenue F).

On Monday, June 14, in the case Elk Grove Unified School District v. Michael Newdow, the US Supreme Court has allowed the phrase "under God," which Congress inserted into the Pledge of Allegiance fifty years ago, to stand for the time being. The Atheist Community of Austin co-filed an amicus brief on behalf of Michael Newdow, a fellow atheist whose challenge to the theistic reference was upheld by a lower court. The separation between church and state, as set down by the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment, has been an important issue in the matter.

However, the Supreme Court's 8-0 ruling against the lower court's decision was largely the result of a technicality, with the Justices' actual opinionsdivided. Writing for the majority, Justice John Paul Stevens, joined by Justices Anthony Kennedy, David Souter, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, and Stephen Breyer, argued that Newdow, who challenged the current Pledge on behalf of his daughter, lacked the custodial standing to bring the case, siding with only one of the objections in the amicus brief filed by Sandra L. Banning, the child's mother and also a devout Christian. (The Counsel of Record for Banning was attorney Kenneth W. Starr, the former US Solicitor General under President George H. W. Bush, and also the former Independent Counsel in charge of investigating President Bill Clinton.) In a dissenting opinion, Chief Justice William Rehmquist, joined by Justice Sandra Day O'Connor and (in part) by Justice Clarence Thomas, said that Newdow had the right to bring the case to court, but that the words "under God" do not violate the Establishment Clause; Justices O'Connor and Thomas wrote their own separate opinions as well. Justice Antonin Scalia had recused himself from the case.

A useful guide to the case can be found at the website Restore our Pledge of Allegiance. Amicus briefs in support of both sides can be accessed here, including Banning's overall position. One can also read the amicus brief co-filed in support of Newdow by the Atheist Community of Austin, Seattle AtheistsSecular Coalition for America, and Institute for Humanist Studies.

At the Supreme Court's own website, one can also examine the oral arguments that were presented before the Justices in this case on March 24. Here Newdow himself addresses the issue of standing with the argument that Banning can raise their child as she wishes but that the state itself has no business promoting religion. He notes that "there's a crucial difference between government speech endorsing religion, which the Establishment Clause forbids, and private speech endorsing religion, which the Free Speech and Free Exercise Clauses [also from the First Amendment] protect." Newdow's argument distinguishes Banning's parental involvement from the state's interference, but the Supreme Court's decisionnevertheless dismisses Newdow's standing on custody grounds without taking a position on the government's promotion of a monotheistic entity.

Still, by declining to rule on the constitutionality of the theistic reference itself in this election year, majority opinion on the Supreme Court has left open the possibility for another student, or another student's parent, to pursue a similar case in the future. The Atheist Community of Austin will continue to report on, as well as support, challenges to the current Pledge of Allegiance on the principle of church-state separation.

On the first Sunday of every June, the Atheist Community of Austin has a booth at the Texas Pride Festival, sponsored by the Lesbian/Gay Rights Lobby of Texas as part of its Texas Pride Weekend

The yearly event at Fiesta Gardens gives ACA members an opportunity to meet other gay and gay-friendly people and to catch up with gay and gay-friendly friends, talking to one and all about our organization's activities and goals. The five religious fundamentalists protesting outside the gates this year also provided yet another reminder about the importance of church-state separation!

The relevance of a secular society to equal rights and individual liberty was also addressed on that day's edition of The Atheist Experience. Co-host Keryn Glasser and producers Steve Elliott and Joe Rhodes had just arrived from the Festival to do our live television program, which begins at 4:30 pm each Sunday. Other ACA members continued to run the booth and enjoy the event, where over a hundred other local organizations also participated.

Atheist Community of Austin

The Atheist Community of Austin is a 501(c)(3) non-profit organization dedicated to promoting positive atheism and the separation of church and state. The ACA serves the local Austin community through outreach programs, providing informational resources and various volunteer activities. In addition, the ACA serves the community-at-large through free online portals including informational wikis, regular audio/video podcasts and interactive blogs.

We define atheism as the lack of belief in gods. This definition also encompasses what most people call agnosticism.

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