Sixteen words. That is all there is to the proposed addition to this state’s constitution. The text doesn’t even form a complete sentence.
A single phrase endorses the incontrovertible, that parents play the paramount role in shaping the lives of their children. A clause would codify the ideal, giving parents the inalienable right “to direct and control the upbringing, education, values and discipline of their children.”
Yet, these are fighting words. They form a lean script that speaks to a vast cultural divide gaping across the nation and now, in particular, across the high plains and mountains of Colorado. The state’s “Parental Rights Amendment” is the latest flash point of a national public policy debate over whether government has overstepped its bounds in shaping the lives of families.
Advocates of the amendment believe bureaucrats have usurped the traditional role of parents in deciding what children will learn in school, how they will be disciplined and what confidential social and medical services they may use.
In such a climate, they argue, the rights of parents need to be protected and citizens need to ask themselves one essential question: Who should decide what is in the best interest of children - parents or the government?
Opponents characterize the amendment as a deceptive instrument sought by the religious right to foist its moral agenda on the public. Cloaked in motherhood and apple-pie language, the amendment would give individuals a vastly stronger legal tool to challenge a host of laws that affect the health and education of children, they say. Parents could use the amendment to censor public school curricula they find objectionable, such as sex education and evolution; to advocate for the use of school vouchers; to challenge the right of minors to seek an abortion or mental health counseling without parental consent; to impede the power of child abuse investigations and prosecutions.
During the last two years, similar measures have been introduced in Congress and in the legislatures of more than half of the states, so far without success. But advocates here have collected the signatures of 83,100 voters, more than enough to place Amendment 17 on the statewide ballot, making Colorado the first state to do so.
So far, the measure has won strong support, though analysts predict it will wane as voters learn more about the surrounding controversy. Three-quarters of registered voters endorsed the measure, including a majority of both Democrats and Republicans, in a poll conducted last month by The Rocky Mountain News and Scripps Howard News Service.
The views of Kristine Woolley, executive director of the Coalition of Parental Responsibility, the Colorado organization advocating the amendment, suggest the frustrations that are fueling its support.
“It seems to me parents ought to be given respect,” said Woolley, the mother of six children who works as a pediatrician’s assistant. “Government elitists have something to lose if I as a parent have more of a voice.”
She ticks off the examples of an arrogant government demeaning parents’ authority. The teacher of a sex-education class for fourth- and fifth-graders in Littleton, the Denver suburb where she lives, answered questions about how homosexuals have sex. Woolley would like to know if her daughters seek to have an abortion, or if any of her children seek access to birth control or psychological services, but the state of Colorado does not require parental notification.
Even day-care licensing is an affront. State officials may bring charges against a caretaker who does not have a license to watch Woolley’s children. “Why should the state of Colorado penalize someone for watching my kids?” Woolley asked. “They’re basically saying I’m not competent enough to pick out my own day care.”
By contrast, the possible consequences of Amendment 17 frighten parents such as Evan Zuckerman, the mother of two in the Denver suburb of Greenwood Village, and a lawyer whose work includes issues involving guardians for children and youth.
“I’ve never felt at a loss for my rights,” she said.
Zuckerman wonders whether her 12-year-old daughter’s schooling might suffer, whether lessons on, say, sex education or AIDS awareness would be eliminated, whether materials at the public or school library might be censored. Would her daughter be allowed to use confidential health services? “I don’t ever want to cut off that avenue to her,” she said.
Adolescents who need substance abuse treatment and teens contemplating suicide would be threatened by the amendment’s provisions, she believes. The amendment might give abusive parents a defense, that the abuse was within their right to discipline their children as they see fit. Adoptive parents have expressed concern that the amendment might be used as a tool for the natural parents to take back the children they gave away.
“This completely abandons the best interests of the child for the best interests of the parent,” Zuckerman said. “I think bad parents could abuse it and good parents don’t need it.”
Zuckerman is working with “Protect Our Children,” a coalition of more than 100 diverse local, state and national organizations opposing the amendment, including professional groups for teachers, librarians, lawyers and health care workers. Opponents include the Colorado Bar Association, the National PTA, the America Academy of Pediatrics, the Child Welfare League of America, and People for the American Way, a civil liberties organization that concentrates on public education issues.
Gov. Roy Romer, a Democrat, also opposes the amendment, calling it “explosive in its ambiguity.”
The chief architect of the amendment and the legislation introduced throughout the country is Of The People, an Arlington, Va.-based organization formed in 1993 to champion the parental rights cause. Of The People has contributed 97 percent of the funding for the Colorado amendment, public finance reports filed so far show.
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