Hundreds crowd Capitol for hearing on sex ed changes

A hearing for a sex-education bill drew a crowd that filled the Colorado Capitol's largest hearing room as well as two overflow rooms and the hall outside on Wednesday, Jan. 30.

A 10-hour hearing with hundreds of witnesses, mostly opposed, didn't dissuade Democrats on a House committee Wednesday night from advancing a bill that will ban abstinence-only education and make other changes to the state's comprehensive sex education curriculum for public schools.

House Bill 1032, sponsored by Democratic Reps. Susan Lontine of Denver and Yadira Caraveo of Thornton, was the subject of hours of testimony and passed the House Health and Insurance Committee on a party-line 7-4 vote.

The bill now heads to the House Appropriations Committee because it carries a $1 million grant for schools that choose to offer a comprehensive sex education curriculum.

Under the measure, Colorado schools that teach sex education would have to provide "medically accurate information about all preventive methods to avoid unintended pregnancy and sexually transmitted infections, including HIV/AIDS."

Schools would be barred from promoting "sexual abstinence as the primary or sole acceptable preventive method available to students." The bill also "prohibits instruction from explicitly or implicitly teaching or endorsing religious ideology or sectarian tenets or doctrines, using shame-based or stigmatizing language or instructional tools, employing gender norms or gender stereotypes, or excluding the relational or sexual experiences of lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender individuals."

Most of those who came to testify were opposed to the bill. Some spoke out against standards that have existed in state law since 2013. Few actually talked about the issues the bill is intended to address. 

Among the few was attorney Kristi Burton Brown, who challenged the section of the bill that disallows teaching based on religious ideology.

"Religious neutrality is constitutional," Brown said. "Bias against religion is not."

Robin Coran, an ordained minister who is also part of Republican U.S. Rep. Ken Buck's staff, said he expected lawmakers to follow the constitution. "This legislation strips rights from parents and children. It's an attack on free speech, religious liberty and property rights" and demonstrates an intolerance for biological facts and religion, he said. 

Several witnesses incorrectly said HB 1032 would require teaching sexually explicit techniques to children as young as 9 years old (it wouldn't) or that schools would teach sex ed without input from parents (state law already allows parents to opt out).

On the other side were witnesses who talked about the abstinence-only curriculum taught in Douglas County schools, stating that it shames girls.

Said Laura Reeves, a parent whose daughter attends a Douglas County middle school: “My daughter’s school teaches abstinence-only and it’s incredibly negative. The teacher held up a picture of a girl and called her ‘dirty and nasty.’"

"This does not represent my Christian values,” Reeves added.

Witnesses from the Colorado Coalition Against Domestic Violence, the Colorado Coalition Against Sexual Assault and the state's Interfaith Alliance also testified in favor of the bill, particularly its requirement about teaching consent.

"Faith leaders stand for comprehensive sex ed because of our beliefs, not against them," one witness said.

The bill also drew testimony from students at several Denver area high schools — some opposed, others in favor.

Students representing the Colorado Youth Congress pointed out that while parents should be the first source for sex education, as is claimed by those opposed to the bill, for some students it isn't possible.

"If parents won't teach it at home we need to learn it at school," said a student, Elena, from East High in Denver.

One section of HB 1032 directs the comprehensive sex education curriculum to include information about healthy relationships, including the idea of consent. One student, who identified as LGBT, said had she had information on consent she could have informed a younger sister. "She came to me too late," the student said. 

The later the hearing went on, the more graphic and hostile some witnesses' comments became, with some referring to pedophilia, bestiality and gay sex acts. 

Then there was an exchange between Democratic Rep. Brianna Titone and a Catholic priest who was on hand to testify against the bill. 

Titone asked the priest if he abstains from sex, which drew howls from the audience. The priest said he learns about sex from confession.

"I sure didn't see that response coming!" Titone said later in a tweet. "Although I'm pretty sure that testimony from the confessional is not the type of 'expertise' that will help young people practice safe sex."

Republican Rep. Susan Beckman of Lone Tree said an aide has listened to people sobbing on the phone over the proposed legislation.

"This one has struck a nerve," she said.

She isn't alone; Speaker Pro Tem Janet Buckner said her phone has been ringing off the hook over the bill.

The bill was amended by Lontine to include information on the state's safe haven law, which allows a parent to relinquish custody of a newborn of less than 72 hours old to an employee of a fire station or hospital.

The committee's four Republicans also tried, without success, to change the bill with amendments at the tail end of the Wednesday night hearing.

"This is a matter of faith and we as a state are stepping into that," said Republican Rep. Mark Baisley of Roxborough Park.

Lontine said at the end of the hearing that what rankled her the most was the graphic descriptions of sex acts that witnesses claimed would be taught to children.

"This bill does not say that," she said. "Talking to kids about sex is hard. I get that. It's vital to teach your kids your values, religious and otherwise. We in no way intend to take that away."

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