When David Parker opened up the book "Who's in a Family?" given to his 5-year-old son last year at Estabrook Elementary School, he was livid.
The school said the book, which portrays contemporary family structures including those headed by same-sex parents, was part of a broader array of materials intended to promote diversity in the Lexington, Mass., school district. But to Mr. Parker and his supporters, the book is part of a "homosexual agenda" inappropriately peddled in the classroom.
His fight in Massachusetts has become a rallying call among conservatives, some radical, across the country. Last summer, the Westboro Baptist Church from Kansas came to Lexington to picket outside its schools and churches. In the fall, Parker visited Maine in support of a religious group trying to overturn a law banning discrimination in places such as work because of sexual orientation.
But nowhere has he been more galvanizing than in the arena of sex education. He is at the center of opposition to a new bill in Massachusetts that would lift the status of health classes, including sex education, to that of science, math, and other core subjects.
State codification to teach about homosexuality will only embolden gay rights advocates, he says. "They are trying to force their own views, views that are controversial in the adult world, upon young children."
His opponents maintain that in a changing world, in which same-sex couples can legally marry in Massachusetts and gay coupling is broadcast on prime-time TV, comprehensive education is crucial to end discrimination and create safe schools.
The debate here echoes disputes in other towns, from Montgomery County, Md., to Spokane, Wash.
While sex education has been firmly entrenched in American public schools since the 1980s, says Jeffrey Moran, who wrote on the politics of sex education in his book "Teaching Sex," same-sex issues have become a new lightning rod for conservative groups. "It is the organizing principle for them attacking sex education in general," he says.
Nearly 20 bills have surfaced in each of the past three years attacking sex education, with increasing scrutiny of gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender issues, according to Rebecca Fox, assistant director for public policy at the Sexuality Information and Education Council of the US (SIECUS). She says debates have arisen in conservative enclaves and liberal townships alike.
In Massachusetts, some parents are upset by the new health-education bill because it recommends teaching young children about homosexuality. It also would include lessons on nutrition and violence prevention, among other topics.
The state's public schools would not be mandated to teach the courses, and parents, could opt their children out of sex-education classes, as they can now, under state law.
The "opt out" right is at the center of the debate in Lexington. When Parker inquired about pulling his son out of any discussion of homosexuality at the school, he says, he was told it was not an option because such scenarios would not be related to sexuality but to diversity.
The clash culminated in his arrest last April, after he refused to leave a meeting at the school until his demands were met.
Some parents feel that he is purposely confusing diversity with sex education to push his agenda, and that his request is unfeasible. "Kindergartners talk about their families every five minutes in class," says Laura Tully, spokeswoman of Lexington C.A.R.E.S, a group formed in response to Parker's arrest so that all students, it says, feel welcome in the school district. "These are real families that are in our classrooms. This is not some abstract culture-war issue."
Parker's case may be dramatic, but similar skirmishes are happening across the country. Most of them are at the local level. In Spokane, for example, the school board last summer rejected a revised curriculum that included materials on gay and lesbian subjects because it felt the material was not objective enough, says Scott Stowell, who coordinates the health and science curriculum for the district. He says he was surprised to see a band of parents opposing the revised curriculum at the board meeting.
The situation has become more heated in Montgomery County. Its board of education voted to permit teachers to initiate discussions about homosexuality in 2004. A group of parents called the Citizens for a Responsible Curriculum responded by suing the school district. The district has since scrapped its plan and is writing another curriculum.
Michelle Turner, president of the group, says she has sent six children through Montgomery schools and, until now, she never had problems with the sex- education curriculum. She, like many critics, says she is tolerant of people's personal choices, but resents what she sees as gay advocacy groups wanting children to validate and celebrate those lifestyles. "It's just gone too far," she says.
Groups that support sex education, including information on homosexuality, say the goal is awareness and safety, not indoctrination. "There is this whole myth of the homosexual agenda," says Ms. Fox of SIECUS. "But really it's about keeping young people safe" from situations such as antigay bullying.
Despite increasing calls and funding for abstinence education, the majority of Americans favors not just sex education, but also discussions of homosexuality if it's presented in a "neutral manner," according to a 2004 poll by the Kaiser Family Foundation, Harvard University, and National Public Radio.
Even as society becomes more open to alternative lifestyles, Parker says, the classroom does not have to reflect that acceptance. "People from the other side say society is changing," he says. "That may be the case ... but it doesn't mean everything goes in talking to young people."