Mass. couple pushes Prop 8
by Dan Aiello
Like Reverend Lovejoy's wife on the television series The Simpsons, the new Yes on 8 campaign ad features a Massachusetts couple asking Californians, "Won't somebody pleeeaaase think of the children?"
But although the couple presents themselves like a Norman Rockwell portrait come to life, Joseph "Robb" and Robin Wirthlin are real, and a very real threat to opponents of Proposition 8, which would eliminate same-sex marriage in California.
Robin Wirthlin is a dutiful, if somewhat dour, stay-at-home wife and mother. Robb Wirthlin is a handsome, bright, hard-working military father with an MBA who is seeking a doctorate from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. In 2006, their son Joey, then 7, had, according to his parents, his innocence snatched from him the day his teacher read him a fairy tale. And the villain - what else? Same-sex marriage.
Now the Wirthlins are working very hard on behalf of the Yes on 8 campaign appearing in a TV ad and traveling up and down the state on a bus tour in order to convince Californians that these out-of-staters know what's best for residents of the Golden State.
The Wirthlins story is simple as told by them. They were only trying to protect their son and felt wronged by the overwhelming opposition of their community and the First District Federal Court.
What the couple and the Yes on 8 campaign do not mention, however, was that the Wirthlins were members of a political organization pressing for an amendment to the Massachusetts Constitution that would ban same-sex marriage before the teacher read the book King and King to their son, according to a 2006 article by Michael Meade of 365Gay.com. The Wirthlins, it seems, were looking for a reason to sue in Massachusetts. Now they're looking for a fight here in California.
At the Wesleyan Riverside Church in Sacramento on Monday, October 20, the Wirthlins presented themselves as loving parents whose lives, and whose child's, life were devastated by same-sex marriage.
The Wirthlins joined David Parker, another Lexington, Massachusetts parent, in filing a federal lawsuit in May 2006. The Wirthlins alleged their civil rights were violated when a pro-gay fairytale was read to their children at Estabrook Elementary School. In March 2006, the teacher had read the book King and King to her second grade class as part of a lesson about weddings. Parker sued because his kindergarten child was sent home with a "diversity book bag" that contained a book that dealt with family diversity. The books were not required to be read to the student.
At the end of the reading in Joey Wirthlin's class, the teacher explained that same-sex marriage is legal in Massachusetts and some children have two mommies while other children have two daddies.
King and King is aimed at elementary school children and helps teach diversity. The book, by Linda De Haan and Stern Nijland, tells the story of Prince Bertie who searches for love through a bevy of eligible princesses before falling for Prince Lee.
According to the Web site http://www.davidparkerfund.org, the parents did not challenge the use of these books as part of a non-discrimination curriculum in the public schools, but challenged the school district's refusal to provide them with prior notice and to allow for exemption from such instruction. They asked for relief until their children were in seventh grade.
In the suit, the Wirthlins said the school was attempting to indoctrinate their children about an "immoral lifestyle." The suit complained that school officials bypassed their parental rights to raise their children how they wish, and in doing so, violated their civil rights.
The Wirthlins lost their legal battle - the U.S. Supreme Court just declined to hear the case, letting the lower court ruling stand - but they are far from losing the war. They are part of the out-of-state effort by the Mormon Church, whose members have contributed millions of dollars to the Yes on 8 war chest, to pass Prop 8.
Chip White, a spokesman for Yes on 8, confirmed that the Wirthlins are members of the Mormon Church.
The Wirthlins admit that their son already knew children of same-sex couples at Estabrook, even before the book was read to him, but claim that "kids don't pay attention to other kids' parents, they just do things like play on the playground." When asked by the Bay Area Reporter if they had a message for the estimated 52,000 California children with same-sex parents, Robin Wirthlin shrugged her shoulders and said, "no."
Robb Wirthlin avoided the question of whether they'd ever let their son stay over at the home of a same-sex couple. "We don't allow sleepovers," he said.
Prop 8's opponents said the Wirthlins are misinformed about the California initiative.
"So what they're angry about is that Massachusetts doesn't have the same opt-out educational code option that California has had for a very long time," said Christine Allen, a retired California public school employee who, with her wife Ann, raised five children.
"It simply isn't something that can happen here - it doesn't make sense to me that they are genuinely concerned about this issue," Allen said.
California state education law allows parents or guardians to opt their child out of any health-related class.
"Our public schools are not required to teach about marriage," state Superintendent of Public Instruction Jack O'Connell said in a statement Tuesday. "And, in fact, curriculum involving health issues is chosen by local school governing boards."
Allen believes that the Wirthlins' experience is simply being used as a scare tactic by the Mormon Church, whose real concern is preventing gay and lesbian people from accessing equal rights. Members of the church have donated millions of dollars to the Yes on 8 campaign.
Known in Mass.
In Massachusetts, the Wirthlins are better known. They, along with Parker, objected to any teacher-initiated discussion that mentions same-sex couples, alleging that such speech violates the parents' views, which are governed by the "laws of the God of Abraham," according to a 2006 American Civil Liberties Union news release that called the lawsuit "frivolous."
"Most people can see that a book about different kinds of families is not sex education," explained Massachusetts ACLU Executive Director Carol Rose in the release. The Wirthlins continue to describe the book in terms that suggest sexuality was explicit in it.
"Imagine if parents who objected to interracial marriage had filed a lawsuit against a school using a book about a black person marrying a white person. No one would say that book was about sex or sexuality issues simply because it portrays two people as being married," Rose said.
Sarah Wunsch, ACLU of Massachusetts staff attorney, said that the federal civil rights claims in the lawsuit were meritless because courts have uniformly held that parental rights are not violated by mere exposure of public school students to ideas that certain parents find offensive or objectionable.
In what one reporter described as "The Battle of Lexington," Meg Soens, a lesbian parent, and Pam Hoffman, who is straight, formed their own organization, LexingtonCares.org, to counter the anti-gay marriage organizations Mass Resistance and the Massachusetts Family Institute that elicited sympathy and support for the Wirthlins with public vigils.
Mass Resistance is a "radical organization," according to Hoffman, noting that it would list private correspondence between the school and the Wirthlins. The women charged that Mass Resistance was a loosely organized group with a Web site set up by conservative actvist Brian Camenker.
"Robin did not necessarily agree with the tactics of Mass Resistance," said Soens. "I told her if she didn't agree with them then she should have them take down the transcripts and private e-mails sent to the Wirthlins." Soens said the e-mails were removed from the site a few days later.
Sonja Eddings Brown, a spokeswoman for Yes on 8, said it was "untrue" that the Wirthlins were members of Mass Resistance.
"We have gay and lesbian parents in our school and they're a very welcome fabric of our lives, but their children are still teased and it's very hurtful," explained Hoffman, who said that the majority of her organization are straight allies of the gay and lesbian parents. "Families are part of the younger curriculum and children talk about their families constantly. That kind of thing is very common and was the context in which the book was read."
The teacher, according to the lawsuit, was Heather Kramer.
"She was devastated," said Hoffman. "She just wanted to teach. It was just her luck that this book was read [to Joey Wirthlin]."
Lisa Kling, who is straight, is a parent of a daughter who was one of the Wirthlin son's friends and classmates. "The teacher was phenomenal, she didn't deserve that," said Kling. "I spoke with Robin after the book was read. She said, 'Did you hear what book was read in class?' She said she was really surprised. But it was the kids who had asked [the teacher] to read that book and Robin knew that. [Robin] asked if I was upset about it and I said 'no.'"
"It's not an agenda," Soens told the B.A.R . "All the school's trying to do is represent all the families in town. Nobody's trying to convince Joey he's gay. It's so taken out of context. There are kids raised by divorced parents, kids raised by stepparents, kids that are raised by single parents. That was the context in which the book was read. There was no mention of sex ed. I just saw [the Wirthlins'] ad on YouTube. Robin goes on and on about a homosexual agenda. That's just not true."
'Had to move'
The Wirthlins told reporters gathered at the Sacramento church rally Monday that they "had to move" from Lexington to another community because the people of Lexington, including people they considered friends, turned against them. The Wirthlins seemed bitter as they described the folks of Lexington as "juvenile" and "sophomoric."
But Hoffman disputes that claim. "As far as I know, they moved onto Hanscom Air Force Base. They moved there when he finished his school," she said.
Kling also disputes the Wirthlins' assertion they were "forced" to move. "I learned they would be moving when he was finished with school two or three years earlier," before the couple became involved in the suit, said Kling.
"All this stuff that they claim came out of marriage equality had already occurred long before gay marriage," said Soens, who explained that books on family diversity had been added to the library years before same-sex marriage became legal in Massachusetts.
"This whole effort to have children feel comfortable talking about their families began in 1999," the same year King and King was written, said Soens.
Soens said the book was never part of the curriculum, but it was part of a library acquisition as part of a grant for anti-bias committees.
"To say they are victims of same-sex marriage is weak," Soens said. "What Parker was asking was that teachers not even acknowledge our family. I had my son come home three different times [saying] how happy he was that there were gay people mentioned in a book."
"The Wirthlins don't really believe that all families are equal. They believe theirs is better," said Ellen Pontac, a Yolo County chapter leader of Marriage Equality USA, who was protesting in front of the Yes on 8 rally Monday along with other No on 8 activists who called themselves "the truth squad."
"They're saying 'your family is not real' to us, even their signs are offensive. There are ... children throughout California with same-sex parents. What is the message they are trying to send to our children?" asked Shelly Bailes, another Yolo county leader of MEUSA.
Sacramento's Westminster Presbyterian church minister David Thompson came to the rally to support the No on Prop 8 protesters.
"We need to ask what is the most loving thing we can do," Thompson said. "We can honor and respect our Supreme Court's decision and the laws of our land. We are a nation where the majority upholds the rights of the minority and does not legislate them away."