A Washington Comprehensive Sex Ed Bill May Have Been Saved by Secular Voters November 8, 2020

A Washington Comprehensive Sex Ed Bill May Have Been Saved by Secular Voters

On Election Day, the state of Washington voted decisively in favor of Referendum 90.

Here’s the backstory in brief: The state legislature passed a bill in March requiring public schools to teach comprehensive sex education because that’s what you’re supposed to do. (The bill allowed students to be excused from those classes if their parents requested it.)

But opponents of the bill collected signatures and got Referendum 90 on the ballot, essentially giving citizens a direct opportunity to overturn the bill. They failed. Nearly 60% of voters decided to keep the sex ed bill in place. Good!

Voters were also choosing their next governor and — no surprise here — Democrat Jay Inslee won re-election with about 60% of the vote.

Inslee’s Republican opponent, Loren Culp, saw his loss coming from a mile away, but during his election night party, he whined to the crowd about how Washington supported the sex-ed bill in the referendum:

“Sixty percent of the population of this state wants the comprehensive sex ed bill, really?” Culp asked the crowd, which booed. “I’ve not met anyone who wants that. Yet they’re telling us it’s passed? You’ve got to be kidding me!”

This seemed to be a widely shared reaction across the political right. Referendum 90, to mandate sex education in the schools, had seemed in the spring to be one of those issues where leftists had just meddled too far into the affairs of parents and families. Opponents swiftly gathered twice the signatures needed to repeal the Legislature’s bill, and the Republican party put money in and ran with the repeal movement as a can’t-miss rallying cry against overbearing government.

So it seemed to stun everyone how easily such a formerly hot-button topic could sail through. Sex ed won by about 16 percentage points and carried 14 counties, including two in Eastern Washington.

Seattle Times columnist Danny Westneat has a theory about why it happened, though. He attributes the success of the sex-ed referendum to non-religious voters, who make up about a third of the voters in the state.

The campaign to repeal the sex ed law was energized by churches and anti-abortion groups, and backed by the Washington State Catholic Conference.

“It’s not for nothing that two-thirds of the signatures on the Parents For Safe Schools petition came from church sites,” the conservative magazine National Review noted. “Christianity has its own theology of sexuality and the body that has been thought-through and developed over the course of two thousand years.”

Twenty years ago, this argument and this church-led coalition might have won (as it periodically did on gay rights and other social issues). But now in this state, the Nones rule local politics. The Nones tend to be strongly pro-science and against anything that smacks of morality-policing.

As Westneat points out, there were liberal religious groups supporting the sex ed bill, too, but when a large voting bloc overwhelmingly rejects the intrusion of religion into reality — because it has religious opposition — any attempt to overturn a sensible bill is doomed to fail. No one should be surprised when Secular Americans support secular education.

It’s one thing for Secular Americans to flex their muscle in a blue state. The question that awaits us now is where else — and on what issues — we can replicate this.

(Image via Shutterstock)

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