Abstinence Scofflaws

Louisiana Court Slaps Religion-Based No-Sex Programs

For the first time, a court has put a hold on some of the new government funding to promote sexual abstinence. Finding that certain abstinence programs in Louisiana are in violation of the constitutional separation of church and state, a federal judge there has ordered that the state stop giving money to these groups and face a trial in February. The injunction, ordered earlier this month, comes just as the Bush administration is trying to increase national spending on abstinence and provides a window into the legal questions that arise when public funds are allotted to groups ranging from crisis pregnancy centers to Christian ministries and churches.

Federal spending to discourage sex outside of marriage has skyrocketed to a staggering $102 million per year. The Bush administration has asked for another $33 million, which Congress may approve as soon as September. The law requires that programs that receive abstinence grants discuss contraception only in terms of its flaws and teach that "sexual activity outside of marriage is likely to have harmful psychological and physical effects." Not surprisingly, religious groups have vied to spread this message and, at least in Louisiana, some have crossed the line into outright proselytizing.

The Louisiana Abstinence Education Project, which distributes a mixture of state and federal funds to local groups, has received more than $1.6 million a year in federal funding since 1998, using the money, in part, to create a booklet that attributed the spread of sexually transmitted diseases in the United States to "moral relativism" and the removal of "God from the classroom." The project also printed fact sheets that encouraged teens to "speak out against the prevailing culture, especially the activities that are bringing about the demise of our Judeo-Christian heritage."

The state's abstinence project also funded Rapides Station Community Ministries, a group that used "bible based" lessons to teach abstinence. "December was an excellent month for our program," stated one of its 1999 reports. "We were able to focus on the virgin birth and make it apparent that God desires sexual purity as a way of life." Just Say "Whoa," a theater group that proclaims itself "Christ-centered," received $29,500 in government money. (Its promotional materials announce, "Our belief is that sexual activity outside the commitment of marriage is offensive to the Lord we serve and should not be condoned or encouraged.")

Louisiana is a Bible Belt state whose governor, Mike Foster, is a particularly ardent abstinence supporter. But abstinence-only critics fear that the state is not the only one misspending its abstinence money. "We're concerned that in other states taxpayer dollars are being used to promote religious beliefs through these programs," says Jaya Ramji, staff attorney at the ACLU's Reproductive Freedom Project, which filed the Louisiana suit. Lawyers at the project are now investigating abstinence-grant recipients across the country, a process Ramji says is "extremely burdensome."

Indeed, many religious groups received awards in the latest round of abstinence funding, which totaled $27.7 million. Among them were Florida Christian College, Roanoke Chapel Baptist Church in North Carolina, and at least seven Catholic organizations, including three in New York.

Legally, a religious group can receive government money as long as it does not use the money to promote religion. But it's not clear that all grant recipients are staying on the secular side of the line—or even where that line officially lies. Consider the Heureka Center, a Burlington, New Jersey, group that received $50,000 in abstinence funding this year and promotes health through "Trust in God—the center of life, physical, mental, and spiritual."

Several Sources Foundation, a New Jersey group that received $2.3 million in the latest round of federal grants and will teach abstinence in the Newark public schools and local Catholic schools, exemplifies the difficulty of keeping religious and secular programs separate. A document on the Several Sources' Web site describes the teenage landscape as divided by a cross. On one side lies the "Chastity Parkway" that leads to heaven. On the other is the "Lust Highway" that leads to hell—and is also paved with sex, abortion, drugs, and "holding grudges." According to the site, the group is pushing to move beyond abstinence to chastity. What's the difference? "Abstinence simply means saying 'no' to sex when dating! . . . Chastity means asking God to guide your thoughts, your words and your actions on every date you have."

Despite the seeming preference for the religious version of abstaining from sex, Several Sources' founder, Kathy DiFiore, insists she'll take a secular approach when overseeing the Choice Game, a three-year project funded through the federal grant. The Choice Game makes no reference to God when using role-playing to teach teens not to have sex or use drugs. Nevertheless, DiFiore says the two programs have similar ways of explaining the conflicting forces affecting teens. "In the grant, it's called the pro and the con. Otherwise, we call it the angel and the demon," she says. "Whether you believe in God or not doesn't matter. His words are written on our heart."

In Louisiana, at least, abstinence-only programs are now being forced to stop teaching those words in classrooms, printing them up in flyers, and reading them aloud in school plays on the government's dime. And the state is gearing up for a trial that promises to be closely watched by abstinence supporters and critics across the country. In the meantime, DiFiore, in New Jersey, says, "I thank God that we have some money."

 
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