TOPICS > Politics

We, the Parents

October 28, 1996 at 12:00 AM EDT


BETTY ANN BOWSER: It’s just 15 words: “The rights of parents to control the upbringing, discipline, education, and values of their children shall not be abridged.” But that proposed amendment to the Colorado state constitution has caused a sharp debate among parents in this state and could soon stir debate around the nation as 27 other states consider similar measures.

SPOKESPERSON: Who came up with the wording of the amendment?

BETTY ANN BOWSER: Both supporters and foes of the measure, known as the Parental Rights Amendment, or Amendment 17, have been debating it for weeks at parent-teacher meetings.

MIKE NORTON, Amendment Supporter: It is needed because parents are frustrated by some government actions in Colorado that are disruptive to the family relationship and are interfering with families’ rights and parents’ rights to relate to and control their children.

MS. FOFI MENDEZ, Amendment Opponent: The amendment disrupts adoption, public education, health care, and child protective services in the state of Colorado. And what ends up happening is that the children are the ones that are going to end up being endangered.

JOHN SPEARING, Amendment Supporter: (at dinner table) Thank you, God, for the food we’re about to eat.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: John Spearing thinks children and their parents need the amendment to protect them. Although he’s president of the Pueblo School Board, he and his wife, Penny, are frustrated with their school system. They see Amendment 17 as a way parents could force schools to stop practices they disagree with like sex education.

JOHN SPEARING: Our schools, they’re actively involved in social engineering, and they’re, they’re doing things with our kids that aren’t appropriate. I didn’t raise or have children so the government can come in and tell me how they can be raised.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: If Amendment 17 passes, what would be the first things that you as a parent would try to have removed from your school system here?

PENNY SPEARING, Amendment Supporter: One would be psychological testing, anything to do–anything that would have to do teach any kind of values or attitudes, basically just stick to the basic, um, reading, math, English.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: But it isn’t just the school system that troubles the Spearings. Two years ago, he was accused of abusing one of his teenage daughters. After a lengthy investigation by Social Services, the charges were dropped. But he says the whole thing shows how government agencies have taken over the rights that parents traditionally had in raising their children.

JOHN SPEARING: They really have this feeling that they know what’s best for your children, and they don’t–we do.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: Former U.S. Attorney Mike Norton says Amendment 17 is a simple remedy for what bothers the Spearings.

MIKE NORTON: And it simply says that parents shall have the right to direct and control the upbringing, education, values, and discipline of their children. Now, that’s what it says, and that’s frankly what it means.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: Gov. Roy Romer argues that the amendment is anything but simple.

GOV. ROY ROMER, Colorado: The words are deceptively simple, and I use those words deliberately. They’re deceptively simple, and they could mislead us. I call it a chocolate-covered lemon. It looks good on the outside. You bite it, it’s going to be bitter.


BETTY ANN BOWSER: More than 150 organizations from district attorney groups to teacher organizations have banded together to fight the amendment. Mike Hudson is regional director for People for the American Way.

MIKE HUDSON, People for the American Way: Colorado is being picked out as a test ground by national extreme right wing organizations like the Christian Coalition, focus on the family, as a testing ground. I think the bottom line is that this is a–like a one-stop shopping for all of the agenda of the far right political movement. Whether the issue is school prayer, vouchers, evolution in the classroom, or limiting a child abuse investigation, all of those things could be accomplished with this one measure.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: Hudson and other opponents say more than 90 percent of the funding for the amendment comes from Of the People, a conservative organization based in Virginia. That group, along with support from the Christian Coalition, has been pressing parental rights initiatives in states all over the country. But the spokesman for the amendment here in Colorado denies the religious right is involved.

SPOKESMAN: I’m offended by those kinds of comments. Eight-three thousand Coloradans have signed the petitions to place this measure on the ballot. I have no idea what the religious persuasion of any one of the eighty-three thousand Coloradans who have signed the ballot. I don’t think Coloradans are moved by these apocalyptic horror stories. I think they’re really moved by the common sense notion that it’s time to let parents raise their children again.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: Supporters and opponents also disagree over how the amendment would be interpreted and used.

BRENT NEISER, Amendment Opponent: (speaking to crowd) As a taxpayer, as an adoptive parent, I say, no. It can hurt Colorado, and it can especially hurt our children.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: Brent Neiser is the father of three children who came from homes where they were physically and mentally abused. He and his wife, Marion, fear that Amendment 17 could override state laws that currently protect children.

BRENT NEISER: I think some parents that are not responsible who may err on the side of discipline that goes beyond the state’s statute, this could be like a constitutional credit card to allow them to control their children in an abusive way that right now they don’t like they have the right to do. They would have an inalienable right to do that kind of discipline. It may be excessive.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: They also don’t want to weaken the power of the state’s Social Service agencies.

MARION NEISER, Amendment Opponent: They were there when my children needed them. Before they were even my children, they were children in jeopardy, children in homes that were life threatening in some ways, and so the service system was there. The laws were there to take the action necessary to put them in protective custody and ultimately, uh, have them in an adoptive situation, and I’m grateful for that, and I don’t want that to change.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: Former teacher and conservative author Tom Tancredo interprets the amendment differently. He says it would no more given parents the right to abuse their children than the right to free speech allows someone to cry “Fire” in a crowded theater.

TOM TANCREDO, Amendment Supporter: I don’t even think they really believe that. I can’t imagine they really believe, truthfully, that any judge in this country, any legislator is going to go, I see, parents have an inalienable right to the, um, to control the values, education, and discipline of their children. That means they can take a tire iron to them and beat them within an inch of their life.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: Opponents and supporters also cannot agree on how it would impact education.

BRENT NEISER: What this amendment might provide in the area of education is almost a designer curriculum, where each parent or set of parents could tell the education establishment, public or private, that they want their kid to be taught a certain way. Education could become a Tower of Babble.

MARION NEISER: We do have conservative Christian values, and we teach them very clearly at home, but we know that they get other viewpoints at school, and then we have wonderful discussions at home.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: But Norton says the amendment would only help keep schools out of areas they should not be entering anyway.

MIKE NORTON: I’m not going to be able to go into a school and demand that the school does not teach math or geology or history or political science or any other kinds of reading, writing, and arithmetic kinds of courses. But where there’s not a shared basis of values for a given scenario in an educational environment, then the school is probably best not involved in that to begin with. It ought to be teaching kids. It ought not to be indoctrinating them.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: Polls show in recent weeks support for Amendment 17 has slipped from 76 percent to under 60 percent, with a quarter of voters still undecided.