Sex ed for six-year-olds in Sunday school

Liberal churches offer sex ed programs for kids as young as six - and they don't just preach abstinence.

A high school freshman in Salt Lake City was talking on the phone with her grandmother one Sunday afternoon last April.

“What did you do in church today?” her grandmother asked.

“I got to taste a flavored condom!” she replied.

“Her grandmother very nearly died,” said Glen Brown, the religious educator who brought the condoms into his United Church of Christ church. “Her mother leapt across the room and started talking to the grandma.”

A growing number of socially liberal churches are bringing sex education into the sanctuary. The United Church of Christ and the Unitarian Universalist Association have together developed a curriculum for children as young as 6 they call “Our Whole Lives--Sexuality and Our Faith.” Combining information about contraception and sexually transmitted diseases with a discussion of sexual morality grounded in religious faith, the program approaches the intersection of sex and religion from the political left.

Many congregations begin teaching sex-ed classes because parents feel the programs offered in schools aren’t providing information they want their kids to have. Far from being uncomfortable about bringing condoms into church, these parents and teachers believe that sex and God are a natural combination. Addressing sexuality in church also allows congregations to counter what they see as an overly narrow interpretation of Christianity.

“We think sexuality is really a gift from God,” said Carolyn Meagher, a parent and sex-ed teacher at First Congregational United Church of Christ in Indianapolis.

Conservative Christians generally agree, but say that abstinence until marriage is the most important lesson for young people to learn.

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The interior of a United Church of Christ in Manhattan. (Photo by Sarah Morgan)

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The interior of a United Church of Christ in Manhattan. (Photo by Sarah Morgan)

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The textbooks used in Unitarian Universalist and United Church of Christ sex-ed classes. (Courtesy of United Church of Christ)

"It's very clear that sexuality was created by God, but the actual sexual behaviors are to be enjoyed within a marriage between one man and one woman for a lifetime," said Linda Kletacki, a sexual health analyst at Focus on the Family, an evangelical Christian organization.

From her perspective, young people should be taught about contraception only as they prepare for marriage.

The Our Whole Lives program is not a marriage prep course. It's designed for ages 6 to 18. The majority of Unitarian Universalist churches offer classes for teens, and a growing number are starting to teach younger children as well. United Church of Christ congregations also tend to adopt the junior high or high school program first and expand to the younger grades later. For all ages, the program aims to make children comfortable enough to ask even their most embarrassing questions.

“I believe that if we respect our children enough, we will answer every question with age-appropriate, medically accurate information,” said Ann Hanson, minister for sexuality education and justice at the United Church of Christ’s national offices in Cleveland.

For children in kindergarten and first grade, the curriculum addresses sexual abuse within the context of a broader message about owning your own body, which Meagher said could include standing up to bullies as well as a “No-Go-Tell” rule for inappropriate touch. Fourth- and sixth-graders learn about puberty, and junior high and high school students learn about contraception, sexually transmitted diseases, and the risk factors for all types of sexual behavior. At each stage students discuss moral values, healthy relationships and the importance of communication. Younger children have homework to get their parents involved, and teen's parents are given the syllabus so they know what will be covered.

In public schools, the federal government now provides funding only for programs that teach that abstinence is the only way to avoid pregnancy and sexually transmitted disease. Additional funding flows to community groups, including religious organizations, that design and run approved abstinence-only programs. Sixteen states, having found abstinence-only education ineffective, now opt out of those federal funds. Six of those states now require comprehensive sex-ed in schools, while the rest have no clear standard for schools - leaving a gray area where other institutions can step in.

“In a lot of communities the church is the focal point of life,” said Patrick Malone, a spokesman for the Sexuality Information and Education Council of the United States. “It’s completely an appropriate place to talk about these issues. The important thing is that the messages that are getting out there are scientific and not fear-based.”

Parents and teachers at churches that offer comprehensive sex-ed say they do it in part because they feel abstinence-only education leaves out crucial information.

“The kids come in and it’s kind of like Swiss cheese,” said Amy Johnson, youth director at the Wayside United Church of Christ in Federal Way, Wash. “They might know a lot about AIDS prevention, but they don't know a lot about birth control.”

In addition to gaps in their knowledge, Johnson says teens come into the church program having been taught misinformation.

“They’re being told things like French kissing leads to rape,” she said.

For these liberal churches, sexuality and spirituality are a natural fit. Offering comprehensive sex-ed sends the message that “you are welcome in this church with your whole self,” says Brown.

“This is why we teach Our Whole Lives in church--because sexuality is sacred, and sexuality education is ministry,” said Rev. Sara Gibb Millspaugh, adult programs director of the national Unitarian Universalist Association in Boston.

For some congregations, promoting a more liberal interpretation of religion, and particularly Christianity, is as important as ensuring that teens know all the facts about birth control. Johnson worked with teens who referred to conservative Christian classmates at school as “uber-Christians.” She felt it was important to challenge that assumption.

“They’re not any more Christian than you are,” she told her students, “It’s just a different perspective.”

The bottom line, as Hanson expresses it, is that the church has to take a hand in teaching young people how to make ethical sexual decisions, and not leave it to the media or other sources.

“That’s just handing over their value formation to somebody else, and we can’t do that,” she said.