SAN FRANCISCO (AP) | A girl in pigtails bounds into the kitchen after school and asks her mother to guess what she learned that day. "I learned how a prince married a prince, and I can marry a princess," she exclaims to her mortified mom.
This television advertisement for a ballot initiative on gay marriage, which would amend the California Constitution to reverse a state Supreme Court decision ordering the state to perform gay marriages, urges voters to "protect children" by approving the measure.
Proposition 8, which defines marriage as the union of a man and a woman, doesn't mention education, but what public schools will be required to teach about homosexuality has emerged as the central issue in the campaign.
The measure's supporters warn that teachers will tell young children about gay marriage if the measure fails Nov. 4. Opponents of the measure say that's deceptive because schools already are required to teach tolerance of gays, and the ballot measure won't change that.
"I've seen the spots on the TV, and [legalized gay marriage] just isn't going to require any kind of teaching of personal relationships or lifestyle," said state Superintendent of Public Instruction Jack O'Connell, who has joined the state's largest teachers union in opposing the measure. "That's just not an accurate statement or portrayal."
California schools have taught on topics such as gay households, homophobia and sexual orientation for years, but how school districts choose to deliver that instruction is decided locally instead of mandated by the state, according to educators and legal experts.
But supporters of Proposition 8 say their claims were proven earlier this month when a public charter school took 18 first-graders on a field trip to San Francisco City Hall, where their female teacher and her partner had just been wed by Mayor Gavin Newsom.
"The other side's argument is [Prop. 8] has nothing to do with education. Our argument is this has everything to do with education," said Chip White, a Proposition 8 spokesman. "It's already happening."
An estimated 52,000 children are being raised by two mothers or two fathers in California, which is one of 12 states with comprehensive anti-bullying laws that apply to gay students and children with unconventional families.
Some elementary schools have acquired books depicting families with same-sex couples, middle schools have taught students not to use anti-gay slurs, and high schools have sanctioned gay-straight alliance clubs. And school districts have been found liable for not taking steps to prevent anti-gay harassment.
The mother-daughter campaign ad refers to "King and King," a children's book about two princes marrying that became the subject of a lawsuit in Massachusetts, the first U.S. state to allow gays to marry.
The parents of a second-grader sued after the book was read in class, but the school district successfully argued that advance notice of the reading was not required because the book was not part of the sex-education curriculum, merely an ordinary depiction of a legal marriage.
Critics of Proposition 8 point out that many schools in California already use "King and King" and other books to discourage discrimination against gay students or children with gay parents.
"The education code already has a high expectation that school districts are going to create an environment where respect for human dignity and acceptance of differences, including sexual orientation, are promoted," said Laura Schulkind, a San Francisco lawyer who represents school districts across California. "I don't see how the legalization of gay marriage or the passage of Prop. 8 changes that obligation."
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