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Sex Education: An Open Letter to Religious Leaders

Education of our young is a partnership between parents, community and teachers. We struggle to figure out how to teach our children values without inculcating them with dogma. Certain areas are off limits in our public schools – prayer, for example.

But certain subjects need to be taught: health and sexuality, for instance. We teach that the guiding principle of sexuality in the Jewish tradition is K’doshim tih’yu—“You shall be holy,” which means that sexuality is linked to blessing, commandment, and God. K’doshim tih’yu, you remember, comes from Leviticus; Or Ami’s Sheryl Braunstein wrote a beautiful song about it here.

Not long ago, our Or Ami Center for Jewish Parenting brought Rabbi Laura Novak Winer, author of the Reform Jewish Movement’s Sacred Choices curriculum, to help us begin a conversation about talking to our children about sexuality. Since then, we have begun preparations to teach elements of the curriculum in our Temple Teen Night program. Why?

We live in a world where our children are exposed each year to thousands of messages – on tv shows, reality shows, movies, commercials, video games and more – about sexuality, most of them reducing it to something physical that people can do when they want with few consequences.

It is time that our children received a more complete understanding of the sexuality, that covers both the physical and dangers, as well as its ethical, social, psychological, emotional, and spiritual dimensions. It is time that our public schools, who are already teaching about sexuality in their health courses, provide a fuller, more valued approach to sexuality. More open, more healthy, more honest.

That’s why a group of Religious Leaders, including myself, have signed onto an Open Letter to Religious Leaders about Sex Education. You can read a more beautifully formatted version here.

OPEN LETTER TO RELIGIOUS LEADERS ABOUT SEX EDUCATION

As religious leaders, we have a continuing commitment to the spiritual, emotional, and physical health of the nation’s young people. Now we are called to join in the public discussion about the nature of sexuality education for the country’s youth. Strong public health arguments support comprehensive sexuality education. Here we invite you to consider the religious foundations for supporting sexuality education—education that respects the whole person, honors the truth and diverse values, and promotes the highest ethical values in human relationships.

A DIVINE BLESSING

Religious traditions affirm that sexuality is a divinely bestowed blessing for expressing love and generating life, for mutual companionship and pleasure. It is also capable of misuse, leading to exploitation, abuse, and suffering. Sexuality, from a religious point of view, needs to be celebrated with joy, holiness, and integrity, but it also demands understanding, respect, and self-discipline. Our traditions affirm the goodness of creation, our bodies, and our sexuality; we are called to stewardship of these gifts.

A TIME FOR DISCERNMENT

Our religious ancestors created rites of passage to recognize the transition to sexual maturity and adulthood. God created us as sexual beings from birth to death; but it is in childhood and adolescence, that we begin to develop the sexual wisdom, values, and morality that will determine whether we will become sexually healthy adults. As religious leaders, we want young people to learn about their sexuality, not primarily from the entertainment media or their peers, but from their parents, faith communities, and school-based programs that address the biological, psychological, cultural, ethical, and spiritual dimensions of sexuality.

AN INCLUSIVE COMMITMENT

Religions have a venerable tradition supporting healing, health care, disease prevention, and health promotion. They also express commitment to the most marginalized, the most vulnerable, those most likely to be excluded. Sexuality education programs must benefit all young people regardless of income, class, ethnicity, and gender. Programs must also be inclusive of those who are heterosexual and those who are sexual minorities, those who are abstinent and those who have had sexual relationships, and those who have experienced brokenness and oppression about their sexuality.

EDUCATION WITH INTEGRITY

Religions value education, including education about our sexuality. We have learned from our commitment to religious education that programs must be age-appropriate, accurate, and truthful, and have both immediate relevance and applicability for later life. Young people need help in order to develop their capacity for moral discernment and a freely informed conscience. Education that respects and empowers young people has more integrity than education based on incomplete information, fear, and shame. Programs that teach abstinence exclusively and withhold information about pregnancy and sexually transmitted disease prevention fail our young people.

TRUTH TELLING

Scriptural and theological commitment to telling the truth calls for full and honest education about sexual and reproductive health. Young people need to know “there is a time to embrace and a time to refrain from embracing” but they also require the skills to make moral and healthy decisions about relationships for themselves now and in their future adult lives. They need help to develop the capacity for personal relationships that express love, justice, mutuality, commitment, consent, and pleasure. Our culture too often models sexuality without responsibility, and many adolescents are left on their own to struggle through conflicting sexual messages. It is with adult guidance and comprehensive information and education about sexuality—education that includes abstinence, contraception, and STD prevention—that young people will be able to make responsible decisions.

A HIGHER STANDARD

As religious leaders, we call on policy makers, school officials, and educators to provide comprehensive sexuality education that honors truth telling and the diversity of religious and moral values represented in the community. Such education:

* Emphasizes responsibility, rights, ethics, and justice.
* Affirms the dignity and worth of all persons.
* Teaches that sexuality includes physical, ethical, social, psychological, emotional, and spiritual dimensions.
* Complements the education provided by parents and faith communities.
* Publicly identifies the values that underline the program.
* Teaches that decisions about sexual behaviors should be based on moral and ethical values, as well as considerations of physical and emotional health.
* Affirms the goodness of sexuality while acknowledging its risks and dangers.
* Introduces with respect the differing sides of controversial sexual issues.

IN CLOSING

People of faith must speak out for comprehensive sexuality education. We know that there are people of good faith who differ with us on what young people need. We seek to reach out to those from whom we may be divided to seek what is best for our nation’s youth. We all must be truth seeking, courageous, and just in our efforts to provide all young people with the sexuality education they so urgently need.

* * *

The Open Letter was developed at a colloquium of theologians in 2002, sponsored by the Religious Institute on Sexual Morality, Justice, and Healing and funded by Planned Parenthood of New York. Participants included Rev. Mark Bigelow, Congregational Church of Huntington, Long Island; Rev. Dr. John Buehrens, Unitarian Universalist Association; Rev. Dr. Ignacio Castuera, Pacific Palisades United Methodist Church; Rev. Steve Clapp, Christian Community; Rev. Dr. Marvin Ellison, Bangor Theological Seminary; Rabbi Sue Levi Elwell, Union of American Hebrew Congregations; Rev. Dr. Larry Greenfield, Religious Institute on Sexual Morality, Justice, and Healing; Debra W. Haffner, M.Div., Religious Institute on Sexual Morality, Justice, and Healing; Ann Hanson, Justice and Witness Ministries, United Church of Christ; Rev. Dr. Sheron Patterson, St. Paul United Methodist Church, Dallas; and Rev. Carlton Veazey, Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice.

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