This column, under the title Let Us Live to Make Men Free,
originally appeared in a significantly abridged version in
The Lexington Minuteman June 18, 1998.
© 1998 Douglas Yeo. All Rights Reserved.
Lexington, Massachusetts is a pleasant bedroom community 10 miles west of Boston, its 30,000 citizens literally living in the "Birthplace of American Liberty" where the first battle of the American Revolution was fought in 1775. Politically liberal to the extreme (this is the state that not only was alone in voting for George McGovern, but which has spawned countless Kennedys), Lexington prides itself on its entrenched leftist thought both politically and educationally. Parents send their youngsters off to school, trusting that they will be cared for in our "excellent institutions of learning" but are for the most part unaware of the ideologically motivated educational experimentation that quietly goes on within the four walls of our school buildings.
When the Lexington School Committee voted in 1992 to distribute condoms to students at Lexington High School without accountability, counseling or parental consent, I sensed a clear prompting to do something about it. But while the policy offended my moral sensibilities to the core, and, as a parent of two school age girls (then 11 and 14) I knew I should "get involved," my initial response was not unlike that of Moses - "Why me, Lord?"
What did I know about condoms and sex education? - I am, after all, a professional musician. I had never worked in the "system" and knew nothing about the political process. Blissfully happy to read my morning paper and then, while shaking my head, simply turn the page, becoming "involved" was far from my mind. But as my offense about the policy our schools had implemented grew, so did the urge to get up and do something about it. And so, as my wife and I answered the call as Abraham answered his - Hineni ("Here am I") - thus began our foray into the "culture wars" - neophyte soldiers fighting in hostile territory.
As we looked around during school committee meetings, we began to identify and meet with other like-minded parents who questioned the new policy - which seemed so wrong headed - on both medical and moral grounds. Over the ensuing months we amassed a veritable library of information on the issues of condom efficacy and sex education. We networked with other organizations which had the information we needed in order to inform ourselves and our community about the truth and facts behind school policies. My wife, a nurse, was adept at deciphering medical studies and reports and we began the process of attempting to take school policy out of the realm of a politicized decision making process and back to the realm of clear and truthful thinking.
Truth is a wonderful thing when you know what it is, but if you're trying to teach colors to a person who truly believes that blue is really red, you have a sense of what we were up against. The old joke, Q - "What do you call people who use condoms?" A - "Parents," is as true today as when it was first told in the 1950's. Despite wishful thinking among proponents of condom based "safe sex," condoms do fail, and at high rates in actual use, especially among children and those engaging in homosexual activities. The specter of AIDS and other more common but equally devastating sexually transmitted diseases led to a rush to condoms as a solution for those who would rather not change their behavior. But children deserve better - they deserve the truth, the knowledge that actions have consequences and, shocking as it may sound, that there are even "right" and "wrong" choices as well.
Our little group of parents found itself in the thick of things as we worked the political system in a way Lexington had never seen. Learning as we went along, we collected signatures of 10% of our town's registered voters to put the issue of condom distribution in the schools before the town in a non-binding referendum. This first ever citizen generated initiative showed our town to be deeply divided (54% in favor of the policy, 46% opposed) and was a visible stress fracture in a town that had perceived itself as monolithically liberal and for many years blindly trusting of the decrees of its elected officials.
Subsequent months found us helping candidates to run for school committee (unsuccessfully), publishing a quarterly newsletter for parents, serving on town task forces on health education and taking part in television and radio debates and interviews. Confident that we could change the world, but still frustrated that our message of sensible information regarding sex education was still not getting into the classroom, we decided to turn to that most potent of tools - advertising.
In the fall of 1993, both the Lexington High School yearbook and school newspaper solicited advertising from our community. Our parent organization, the Lexington Parents Information Network (LEXNET) asked both publications to provide us with their advertising guidelines which they did. We subsequently submitted advertisements which wholly complied with the guidelines we received, advertisements which read:
We know you can do it!
ABSTINENCE: The Healthy Choice
Ours was a simple message, one that was at least tacitly endorsed by the School Committee (a recent community task force on health education had concluded that abstinence was, in fact, the "healthiest choice."). Even though the yearbook accepted our check, cashed it, and the faculty advisor sent us a thank you note, we found our ads ultimately rejected by both publications. A letter from the y earbook advisor said our ad was "controversial;" the newspaper faculty advisor said, "a number of citizens both within and outside of the high school find both your organization and the message you propose to place to be objectionable." Abstinence is "controversial" in a school that distributes condoms? Please.
Hence, we were confronted with viewpoint discrimination by publications which are produced in a public school, financed by the public purse, each with paid faculty advisors paid by the public purse, and each utilizing equipment and facilities provided by the public purse. It was clear that our right of free speech and due process as guaranteed by the first and fourteenth amendments of the U.S. Constitution had been violated by school officials who both had an influence on the decision to reject the ads and who also refused to require that the ads be published despite student opposition to printing them.
After lengthy negotiations with school officials proved fruitless (we were told variously that the ads would, and then would not appear), it became clear that the school's strategy was simply to stand behind the students and assert that they had the "right" to decide as they wanted to. When we regrettably saw that no compromise would be forthcoming, we were fortunate to secure John W. Spillane, an attorney from Worcester, Massachusetts, who had been active in the pro-life movement (he and I both, along with Bernard Cardinal Law of the Archdiocese of Boston, had the honor of being on the Planned Parenthood "enemies list") and who generously agreed to represent us at his own expense as we literally made a "Federal case" out of the issue.
Then the ride began.
U.S. District Court (First Circuit) Judge Richard G. Stearns (a Clinton appointee) turned a deaf ear to all our arguments. Despite the fact that this case had "state action" written all over it (state action is required in order to bring a case in Federal Court), he denied our requests for preliminary and permanent injunctions and for a temporary restraining order against the publications. He ultimately dismissed the case without a trial. We reeled at the incoherence of his arguments.
Several months later, at the U.S. Court of Appeals, we had a moment of victory as we received a favorable 2-1 ruling. But the mainstream press went into orbit decrying the decision as an "infringement of student press rights" - never mind parents and advertisers who have defined rights under our country's public forum doctrine - and several days later the opinion was withdrawn as the full Court granted the Town officials a rare "en banc" hearing. Six months after the Appeals Court had agreed with us, in a highly politicized ruling, it reversed itself and dismissed the case. We were again denied a trial at which we would conclusively proved our allegations. The alleged lack of "state action" ultimately left us without a forum to plead our arguments.
Our final avenue of appeal was to the United States Supreme Court, a long shot at best. Given the split panel decision and the serious conflicts the Court of Appeals seemed to have with itself, we felt it was worth the considerable effort and expense to petition the U.S. Supreme Court for certiorari. But it was not to be. The U.S. Supreme Court, without comment, let the final Appeals Court ruling stand which decided to allow that at least in the First Circuit, groups of students working within the four walls of a publicly-funded high school are beyond the reach of faculty and administration.
It doesn't take a deep thinker to recognize the dangerous consequences of this decision. Now that students at public schools have been freed to make decisions outside Constitutional limitations, will we see school editorial boards having the right to exclude students who want to work for the publication based on their religion, or race? The Courts in their opinions recognized this danger but essentially said they would would "hope for the best." I don't have that kind of confidence.
So, now it is over. Through the last six years of community activism, we found ourselves like the little boy with his finger in the dike, trying to keep back a flood of dissipation that threatened the fabric of our schools. But the forces against us were great and the water leaking through was dark. We were criticized for being, as our local town newspaper, the Lexington Minuteman recently put it, "loose cannon fundamentalist Christians, out of touch and out of line." Never mind that we at LEXNET counted Jews, Catholics, Protestants, and agnostics among our number. Sadly, here in the "People's Republic of Lexington," where the illusion of left-leaning thought must be preserved at all costs, deflection to the messenger rather than discussion of the actual message is a convenient smoke-screen behind which to hide.
We worked the "system" - one that is supposed to be fair and just. But we learned, though, that clever arguments, ad hominem attacks and an activist judiciary can conspire to deprive justice of its need to be blind. Nevertheless, even as we saw this unfolding before our eyes, and because we knew our cause was noble and that Truth was not determined by public opinion or politics, we persevered to hold our citizenry accountable to the high ideals and virtues which should be the hallmarks of society.
Gertrude Himmelfarb, in her book The De-moralization of Society, has noted that in years past, "Virtues were fixed and certain; they were the standards against which behavior could and should be measured. 'Values' brought with it the assumptions that all moral ideas are subjective and relative."
We have lost this distinction between virtue and value at our peril. We are increasingly reluctant to condemn behavior and to stand for what we know is Right and True - rather, today we must "affirm" and "celebrate" everything. Those who have religious beliefs and act upon them are increasingly marginalized and called names. But Truth is Truth. One is not a "homophobe" because you say that the sexually promiscuous homosexual lifestyle is medically dangerous. One is not a "racist" when you question the wisdom and equity of affirmative action programs whether in the workplace or as school busing programs masquerading in the name of "diversity." One is not a "sexist" when you suggest that some topics in health education might be better taught and received when separating boys and girls. One is not "anti-school" when you raise questions about curricula and teaching methods which substitute a "feel-good" self-esteem for actual learning. The pejorative labels are easy to apply but they show a failure to want to actually reach to the roots of problems.
On the Lexington Town Battle Green is a monument to those first martyrs of the American Revolution - our citizenry in 1799 had no difficulty in crediting God with being instrumental in the victory of right over wrong in the American Revolution; the obelisk notes that,
Righteous Heaven approved their Solemn Appeal.
In the beauty of the lilies, Christ was born across the sea,
With a glory in His bosom that transfigures you and me;
As He died to make men holy, let us live to make men free,
While God is marching on.
Where do we go from here? Truly, I don't really know. Six years ago I thought we could change the world and while in many senses we did, we have learned the great cost of standing for principle. I could have done without the harassing phone calls, threats of personal violence, weekly newspaper editorials, columns and letters reminding me of what I fool I was, and the bumper stickers that appeared on cars declaring, in Lexington blue and gold, "Yeo, Douglas! Get a Life!" Sadly, we felt opposition not only from our ideological opponents, but passive opposition as well from those we had hoped would join us in our efforts to stop the cultural slide. Churches and synagogues in town were deafeningly silent as only a single Catholic church was willing to publicly stand along side us. Instead, most religious leaders were reluctant to lead their flock, content rather to hide with the excuse, "Well, I really don't know how our members feel about these issues."
William Yeats predicted this moment:
There is plenty of fight left in me but there are scars as well. These will take time to heal. While God is our refuge and strength, there are other battles to fight on new battlefields. Above all, there is the battle for the hearts and souls of men as we have lost our idealism and have soberly and reluctantly concluded that the legislative process and our courts have woeful limitations. A wise friend told me, "A man convinced against his will is of the same mind still," and, of course, he is right. All the just laws in the world will not change our culture in positive ways unless people - in their hearts - want to make a change.
We took our cause to the highest court in the land and were turned away at the door. But as I walk through our town and consider its rich history, I remember that the battle on the Lexington Battle Green in 1775 was a staggering loss for our colonial Minuteman. As the dead, dying and wounded lay on the ground and the British Regulars marched on to Concord (where they were repelled by a larger force of activist citizenry), they could not have known that in a few short years, after great sacrifice and heroism against all odds, Truth and Right prevailed. Sooner or later, it always does. That is the safety, the security and the sanctuary.
Douglas Yeo is Chairman of the Lexington Parent's Information Network (LEXNET)
All rights reserved.