By JOHN FORTMEYER
SEASIDE — A state-funded, teen-oriented conference on sexuality that drew a large and vocal outcry from concerned Christians a year ago suddenly won’t return this month to this coastal city, and its opponents are giving credit to God.
But they also are quick to credit a Portland TV station for its help as well.
“I think God has something to do with the fact that we were successful in stopping this,” said Jim Welsh, a Nehalem resident who helped organize a protest of almost 100 church representatives last April of the annual Oregon Adolescent Sexuality Conference, and who was readying a much larger protest — likely involving hundreds — for this year’s event.
But such efforts are no longer needed this time. With little detailed explanation, the Oregon Teen Pregnancy Task Force on March 7 announced cancellation of the controversial conference. The e-mail stated that the task force “continues to be focused on facilitating communication and awareness on all facets of healthy sexuality for youth in our community,” but added that “While we remain clear in our vision, we feel current conditions have shifted the setting and our ability to offer open, safe and honest conversations about sexuality.”
The e-mail added that event organizers “cannot, in good conscience, hold a conference when we believe conference participants and our Seaside partners may be put in uncomfortable or unpleasant situations.”
The conference had been scheduled for April 13 and 14 at the city-owned Seaside Convention Center, and had been strongly targeted not only by several North Coast church congregations, but also by Parents Rights in Education, an Oregon parent advocacy group founded in 2011 by Lori Porter. She and other event opponents said materials made available at the conference in the past were extremely inappropriate for teens and perhaps illegal. Clatsop County Sheriff Tom Bergin had expressed his own deep concern about the conference content’s legality.
“Obviously I and those who were working on the protests are elated,” said Welsh. “But we are not necessarily surprised, given some of the information that we had been receiving past couple of months.”
He said a series of heavily publicized reports about the conference by KOIN-TV investigative reporter Carla Castano that began last October, as well as the efforts of Parents Rights in Education, caused support for the conference to erode quickly. “It cumulatively had an effect on registrations, on vendors, on workshop providers, etc., to the point that they were looking at a financial disaster. They wouldn’t be able to pay their bills. They came to a conclusion that they were in a no-win situation. They quit. Threw their hands up.”
Parents Rights in Education charged that the event sponsors, the Oregon Department of Education and the Oregon Health Authority, “have consistently promoted questionable, unsafe behaviors for minors at taxpayer expense.” Describing the content of the conference as shocking and reprehensible, opponents outlined in graphic terms how it encouraged teens to have sex, discouraged chastity, attempted to normalize immorality and perversion, and denigrated Christian values.
As the content came to light, school districts that had sent students to the conference, but which apparently were not aware of the latest content, decided to opt out. Parents Rights in Education has asked those who shared its concerns to thank KOIN’s Castano for her “in-depth and vital reporting.”
Welsh said the controversy was drawing national attention, and that ABC News Nightline and Fox News had indicated interest. American Life League, a Virginia-based pro-life ministry, had sounded an alarm about the conference content in recent years, and said cancellation of the Oregon event is an example for the nation of what concerned citizens can achieve.
“If a conference like this can be shut down in Oregon, explicit sex education can be shut down anywhere in the nation,” wrote Rita Diller of American Life League. “Perseverance and the tenacity necessary to present the evidence and to get this indecency fest exposed by the news media was key in this victory.”
The conference has been intended for educators, health personnel, counselors, social and youth service workers, parents, teen parent program staff, community members and teens, according to the event website. A majority of attendees in the past have been older than 18; those younger had to have parental permission and be accompanied by a legal guardian or chaperone.
Seaside Convention Center contracts normally include a $1,000 fee if an event is canceled within 12 months of its scheduled date. In this case, because of the center’s longtime relationship with the client, the fee was waived as a courtesy by the center manager, The Daily Astorian reported.
The city received some pressure to cancel the event a few months ago, but Seaside City Council had chosen to not breach its contract with the group and to allow use of the center this year, the newspaper added.
The event organizers had charged on the conference website, oregon-asc.org, that KOIN-TV’s coverage was unbalanced, incomplete and “used fear and shame.” They have not indicated whether the conference will take place in the future. If it ever does, Parents Rights in Education is pledging to respond quickly, saying it will “continue to keep communities informed of the information and behaviors these ‘experts’ want for your minor children.”