Parents padlocked the gates of public schools in northern Costa Rica on Thursday to protest optional sex education classes for teens that some believe promotes homosexuality.
The actions took place in at least four schools on the first day of the new school year, according to the Ministry of Public Education.
Other parents elsewhere in the country loudly protested the country’s sex ed curriculum, making their complaints known to local media and in social media posts. By Ministry policy, parents can opt out of the programs if they prefer that their children not have access to sex ed.
The protests took place against the backdrop of heightened religious and social conservatism in the country energized by presidential elections, which, on Sunday, propelled an evangelical preacher who vehemently opposes gay marriage into first place.
The preacher, Fabricio Alvarado, is the candidate of the National Restoration Party, a right-wing Christian group.
He emerged as the front-runner in the first round of elections last weekend; on April, 1 he faces a runoff against the ruling party candidate, Carlos Alvarado (no relation).
A video circulating online featured an unidentified man explaining his opposition to the sex education program at the Puerto Escondido school in Pital, in the northern district of San Carlos, where he said his child was enrolled.
“We are not going to allow this sexual guide to be implanted in our children,” he said. “We are putting on chains and padlocks to say no to this program.”
Some parents interviewed by Costa Rican media said they believed the sex education guide promotes homosexuality, something the government denies.
Education Minister Sonia Marta Mora asked parents who had doubts about the program – which has been in place since 2012 for students in their penultimate year of high school, usually aged around 16 – to contact the schools to get information about its content.
Last year Mora sent a memo to high schools telling them sex education was not compulsory, and that parents could exempt their children from the class.
“It’s very serious that they are claiming that the program promotes homosexuality. It is unacceptable that such false information is circulating,” Mora said.
Her predecessor, Leonardo Garnier, also criticized the bigotry that he said has surrounded the sex education initiative.
“We have now entered a new phase of intolerance. Now schools are being closed to oppose education about sex and intimacy. This is an attack on the right of all to education,” he wrote on his social media accounts.
Garnier shared a video from San Carlos media organization Flecha TV in which one protester says, “He who commits these [homosexual] acts deserves to die… Educate yourselves with the Bible.”
Costa Rica, like the rest of Central America, has maintained traditionally conservative views on social issues that other parts of Latin America have become more relaxed about.
Gay marriage has become a hot-button issue following a statement by the Inter-American Court of Human Rights last month that such unions should be recognized as legal.
That exhortation of the court – which is based in Costa Rica – is meant to be binding on Latin American countries that have adopted the 1969 American Convention on Human Rights, but there is no mechanism for enforcement.
Costa Rica’s outgoing government has indicated that it is open to abiding by the court’s statement, but has run up against opposition from traditionalist notaries who oversee marriages, and from Christian groups now rallying to support Fabricio Alvarado.