LEAD: The Plymouth Brethren, a small religious order that shuns newspapers and television as "pipelines of filth" and rejects computers as "paving the way for the Antichrist," is fighting to keep its children from attending AIDS prevention classes that are mandated by New York State.
The Plymouth Brethren, a small religious order that shuns newspapers and television as "pipelines of filth" and rejects computers as "paving the way for the Antichrist," is fighting to keep its children from attending AIDS prevention classes that are mandated by New York State.
A dispute between the group and the public high school district in Valley Stream, L.I., is now before New York State's highest court here.
"The cardinal principle of their belief is one of separation from worldly influences and separation from evil," said a lawyer for the order, Robert M. Calica of Garden City, L.I.
Lawyers on both sides of the case concur that it boils down to a novel test of what courts should do when state decrees clash with religious strictures. It marks the first time in any state that a religious group's objection to AIDS education has reached an appellate court, they said.
Two lower courts in New York have ruled that despite objections from Brethren parents, their children should be taught about AIDS. The case is scheduled to be heard before the Court of Appeals on Thursday.
2,000 Members in U.S.
The Plymouth Brethren, founded in Ireland in the early 19th century, have about 2,000 members in the United States. About 140 members live in Valley Stream, including 17 students in the local high school district. Another 80 members live in Rochester, where their children are attending AIDS classes.
For years, the Brethren children have been exempted from parts of a sex-education curriculum on the understanding that their parents would teach them about how conception occurs, said Dr. Glenn E. Grube, Superintendent of the Valley Stream Central High School District.
But the AIDS education involves a discussion of homosexual sex, as well as unsafe heterosexual practices and intravenous drug use, which the parents have vowed not even to describe to their children. They object to the depiction of condoms and other illustrations in the curriculum, which they say "recommends immoral practices as if they were acceptable," according to court papers.
'Most Powerful Weapon'
New York State's Education Commissioner, Thomas Sobol, announced in 1987 that AIDS instruction would be required for all public school children in the state, beginning with a general discussion of diseases in elementary school and progressing in later grades to explanations of how AIDS could be transmitted sexually and ways to prevent its spread.
"It is well recognized that education is the most powerful and important weapon against the spread of AIDS," Mr. Sobol said. But leaders of the religious group maintain that their strict moral teachings, which forbid sex outside of marriage and abuse of drugs, would preclude any health risk from AIDS. They say their tenets forbid anyone from outside the order teaching their children about sex.
"Our simple desire is to have our whole life bound up with the testimony of Jesus, the one whom we love, and to serve Him and bring others to Him," said a court affidavit filed by John Ware, Robert Scott and Peter S. MacGregor, three Brethren members in Valley Stream. The group's views on television, newspapers and computers were also noted in the court papers.
Mr. Ware and other members declined to discuss their case, referring all questions to their lawyer, Mr. Calica. "We are prepared to stand by our conscience before God," said Mr. Ware, a carpenter. "On all else, please talk to the attorney."
Mr. Calica said in an interview that his case is built partly on a landmark 1972 ruling by the United States Supreme Court that struck down a Wisconsin law that made state-approved education compulsory until the age of 16. The suit was brought by an Amish group that wanted to provide education for its children at home.
Still, both Mr. Calica and lawyers for the state acknowledge that this case involves a different principle, because the Brethren children are enrolled in the public school. The question is whether they can be exempted from parts of a curriculum on religious grounds.
Many of the Brethren children have already received a partial exemption, allowed by Commissioner Sobol, from the curriculum that explains methods of AIDS prevention. But there is no exemption for the part that deals with transmission of the AIDS virus, which includes a discussion of sex.
"Transmission is a scientific fact," said Karen Norlander, a lawyer for the State Department of Education, in an interview. "There is a communicable disease that exists and that has created a pervasive threat to our society. This group professes that they don't want to know it exists."
In briefs prepared for Thursday's arguments, the group has stressed its moral code, including a biblical injunction against "sodomites, fornicators and adulterers," as an adequate protection against AIDS. But the Education Department maintains that the education is necessary because "no community can claim unequivocally that its children will never choose to leave home in pursuit of alternative life styles."