Issue 73, Spring 1999
Nassau Community College in New York won a lengthy battle over a popular human sexuality course when a federal district judge rejected efforts to eliminate the course. Several residents, represented by the American Catholic Lawyers Association, alleged that Family Living and Human Sexuality (PED 251), violates the Establishment Clause by expressing a “hostility to certain religious views” and “constitutes a deliberate disparagement of traditional Jewish and Christian and particularly Catholic, teachings on marriage, procreation and adultery” (Gheta v. Nassau Community College).
Rejecting the claim that the course entangles the college in religion, U.S. District Judge Nina Gershon observed that, “Allowing religious groups to dictate the curriculum of a public college would have the direct and obvious effect of endorsing those groups? religious views.” Judge Gershon found, “There can be no legitimate state interest in protecting religious persons from views that are ‘distasteful’ to them…If it were unconstitutional to require students to read books in which concepts coinciding with their religious beliefs came under question, then thousands of college courses throughout the country would be invalidated, including courses on philosophy, history, religion, literature and biology.”
PED 251, a standard college-level human sexuality course, has been offered since the 1960s and is one of five courses students may choose to fulfill a health requirement. Subjects covered include anatomy, pregnancy and childbirth, family relationships, gender roles, sexual response, dysfunction, sexually transmitted diseases and sexual violence. Opponents of the course alleged that issues addressed in the curriculum, such as abortion, birth control, sexual behavior and homosexuality, were intended to encourage students to reject traditional Judeo-Christian religious attitudes toward sexuality and to adopt an anti-religious ethic of “sexual pluralism.”
Judge Gershon stated that, “The dispositive issue is not whether the course materials contain statements that conflict with the beliefs of certain religious groups, but whether the inclusion of such statements communicates a message of government endorsement or disparagement of religion.” She concluded it did not.
The case is the first of its kind.