Sex ed change passes House in party-line vote

March 7, 2019

BOISE — A bill to require parents to actively opt their children into sex education passed the Idaho House on a party-line vote Wednesday.

The bill, which was introduced by Rep. Barbara Ehardt, R-Idaho Falls, passed 56-14, with all the Republicans in favor and the Democrats opposed. It now heads to the Senate.

Currently, children take sex education classes unless their parents opt them out. Ehardt’s bill would require them to opt in instead, and it would require that any materials used in the class be available for parents to review before they let their children participate.

“This bill is about consent, it is not about content,” Ehardt said. “An opt-in places all the responsibility on the adult ... where it should be placed.”

Ehardt said many sex education programs aren’t following Idaho’s sex education statute, which calls for parental and community involvement in curriculum and says programs should be approved by the local school board. She highlighted the “Reducing the Risk” program, which is taught at some Idaho high schools and, while it emphasizes abstinence, also teaches about safe sex and reducing the risk of pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases.

“These programs such as Reducing the Risk actually redefine what abstinence means,” she said.

Ehardt said the program teaches students about anal and oral sex and condom use, and tells them they can get birth control or STD tests at clinics without their parents’ permission.

“It normalizes this behavior,” she said. “It undermines and deceives parents.”

Arizona, Utah and Nevada also have opt-in legislation for sex education.

Rep. Gary Marshall, R-Idaho Falls, a former teacher, said sex education is becoming increasingly controversial. Although wider societal views are changing, many Idahoans still believe sex should only take place between a husband and wife. Requiring an opt-in, he said, would help respect that by putting the onus on parents to make decisions.

“I would submit to this body and all who are listening that there are still hundreds and probably thousands of families in Idaho who still hold a more traditional view of sex, sexual relations and sexuality,” Marshall said. “For them, the words sexual purity and chastity still have very important and even sacred meanings. … For those who hold that view of sexual morality, it is good and right and has everything to do with trust, fidelity, obedience and self-control.”

The Democrats expressed a variety of concerns. Rep. Steve Berch, D-Boise, said the opt-out rate is only 2 to 3 percent now.

“This bill makes the exception the rule,” he said.

Berch said it would lead to more students not taking sex education, leading to more unprotected sex, sexually transmitted diseases, unwanted pregnancies and higher social services costs.

Rep. Sally Toone, D-Gooding, who is a retired teacher, worried the bill could affect teaching other subjects that relate more tangentially to sex. She said the state’s sex education statutes, which were written in 1970, need updating.

“This bill just doesn’t do it well enough,” she said. “If we’re going to do it, let’s do it right and correctly with all the stakeholders at the table.”

Rep. Melissa Wintrow, D-Boise, worried it would hurt kids whose parents aren’t as involved as they should be.

“We have to look out for our kids,” she said. “Not all kids have the same fair shot when they come to school.”