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Originally published October 6, 2012 at 8:10 PM | Page modified October 7, 2012 at 4:35 PM

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Gay-marriage foes play on fears with save-the-schoolkids tactic

The National Organization for Marriage tries to claim that once gay marriage is legal, the schools are going to start forcing homosexual values on your kids.

Seattle Times staff columnist

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I got a fundraising letter the other day warning me the real problem with gay marriage isn't that gays will marry.

It's that the schools will tell the children all about it.

"Consider this," said the appeal from the National Organization for Marriage, describing what life could be like if "ordinary, faith-filled Americans," like me, don't rally now.

"Young children will be taught in public schools that it's perfectly normal for men to marry other men."

How I got on the in-list of this group whose campaign tactics I once called "despicable" I have no idea. I guess God has a strange sense of humor. But I'm glad I did because the letter made clear this save-the-children argument is going to be a main focus of the anti-gay-marriage effort in the coming weeks.

It goes like this: Even if you're ambivalent about gays marrying, you should vote no on Referendum 74 anyway. Because once gay marriage is legal, the schools are going to start forcing homosexual values on your kids.

It's the brainchild of Frank Schubert, a California-based political strategist who has been hired to run the anti-gay-marriage effort here.

He came up with the legendary "Princess Ad" during a gay marriage campaign in California. It shows a girl asking her mother to guess what she learned in school that day.

"I learned how a prince married a prince, and I can marry a princess!" the girl beams. The look on the mom's face suggests she just learned the school's cafeteria served her daughter a tray of maggots.

The ad was deadly effective, though, helping defeat gay marriage even in California. According to a speech Schubert gave to the American Association of Political Scientists, he came up with it after hours of focus groups told him people aren't all that threatened by gay marriage itself.

Most voters told him they tend to feel that relationships between other people are none of their business. So he realized he had to make it their business. To show how the heterosexual world might be altered by allowing gays to wed.

It worked. But is it true?

Well, I have two kids in local public schools. Granted, that's in liberal Seattle, but the reality is my kids have always had classmates who have either two moms or two dads. Are schools supposed to pretend those families don't exist?

But even given that, I don't believe my kids' teachers ever have talked to them about any kind of marriages, let alone gay ones.

The reason for that has nothing to do with gay people. It's that when the topic of families comes up, marriage is not all that central to it anymore.

Married households are now the minority in Washington state. The fastest-growing type of family is one the U.S. Census calls "unmarried partners" — two adults, usually straight and often with kids. Basically nuclear families without the wedding.

So looking out over his or her class, a teacher these days isn't likely to see much relevance in bringing up marriage, period.

Yet opponents warn that if Referendum 74 passes, gay marriage will be the talk of the schools.

"Whenever schools educate children about marriage, which happens throughout the curriculum, they will have no choice but to teach this new genderless institution," Preserve Marriage Washington's website says.

Schools appear to be going the other direction. Last year, when the state assessed its health and sex-ed guidelines, reviewers repeatedly suggested that references to marriage as defining a family simply be removed. Not because the definition of marriage was in flux. Because the family is — and was long before gays and lesbians started petitioning to marry.

If these ads start here, I hope we aren't riled up by them. When voters told that political consultant the relationships between other people aren't anybody's business, he should have listened.

Danny Westneat's column appears Wednesday and Sunday. Reach him at 206-464-2086 or dwestneat@seattletimes.com.

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