The American Civil Liberties Union has filed a lawsuit against the state of Louisiana for allegedly using federal grant money to promote religious messages in a state-run, abstinence-only sex education program. "We're going to fight this to the hilt," Dan Richey, the coordinator of the state program, told Christianity Today.

The Governor's Program on Abstinence (GPA) uses volunteers to teach sexual abstinence to seventh-graders. It also helps establish abstinence clubs in high schools across the state.

The ACLU claims that Louisiana's misuse of federal grant money violates the constitutional ban on government advancement of religion.

The lawsuit came as the House of Representatives debated reauthorizing the federal Welfare Reform Act of 1996, which includes funding for abstinence education. The ACLU filed its suit on May 9. One week later, the House voted to reauthorize the program. The Senate will take up the measure later this year.

The original legislation granted $50 million annually to states for abstinence education programs. Louisiana, with the ninth highest teenage pregnancy rate in the United States, has received $1.6 million per year.

'Half truths and distortions'

According to the suit, Louisiana gave students materials that said the increase in sexually transmitted diseases has occurred because educators removed God from the classroom.

Richey said the allegations are "half-truths and distortions." He said the state received those materials from outside sources. The state distributed them to students who were participating in a mock legislative debate. The suit also faults the state for providing $109,000 in grants during the past three years to the Crisis Pregnancy Help Center in Slidell, which promotes a Passion for Purity abstinence program based on biblical concepts.

"The state of Louisiana [is] using public money to preach religion," said Joe Cook, executive director of the ACLU of Louisiana. "The governor's office has to get out of the pulpit and stop putting taxpayer money in the collection plate."

While Richey acknowledges that the Slidell center and other funded organizations promote religious messages, he says government funding is strictly for nonreligious instruction. "Their contract with us is to provide a secular message of abstinence," Richey said. "Any time we're aware of an action from a contract that might be of a religious nature, we get on that right away. Every one of our contractors knows that."

Richey concedes that some organizations or individuals could have stepped over the line in promoting a religious message. He said many organizations named in the suit, including the Slidell center, stopped receiving grant money as of July 1.

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"We're moving that money toward clubs and curricula," he said, because the state has found club-based programs to be a highly effective way of promoting sexual abstinence among teens.

If a court finds the state guilty of misusing funds, Louisiana could be asked to return a portion of the grant money. Says Barbara Elliott, executive director of the Center for Renewal in Houston, "These cases are deciding where the boundaries of the faith community and the rest of the community lie."

Related Elsewhere

Also appearing on our site today:

How Effective?Seventy-five percent of girls in the Best Friends program say they want to save intimacy for marriage.

The official site for the Governor's Program on Abstinence has background information and frequently asked questions as well as resources on the middle school curriculum, high school abstinence clubs.

Articles on the Louisiana program and the ACLU suit include:

Abstinence fund aided religion, official saysThe Dallas Morning News (June 19, 2002)
Abstinence program chief testifies in ACLU suitThe Times-Picayune (June 19, 2002)
Louisiana Abstinence Program Aim of ACLU Lawsuit—CNS News (May 22, 2002)
ACLU Sues Louisiana Over Abstinence EdThe Washington Post (May 16, 2002)
ACLU Sues La. over abstinence teachingThe Washington Post (May 9, 2002)
Abstinence program may be headed to areaThe Shreveport Times (April 8, 2002)

In February, George Bush announced his welfare renewal plan, which increased the funding of abstinence-only sex education programs from $50 to $135 million annually.

Bush presses for $135 million to encourage abstinence only — Los Angeles Times (March 4, 2002)
Abstinence-Only Initiative AdvancingThe New York Times (Feb. 28, 2002)

Related articles on abstinence programs include:

Teen abstinence programs catch onThe State (May 8, 2002)
Virginity Pledges by Teenagers Can Be Highly Effective, Federal Study FindsThe New York Times (Jan. 4, 2001)

Previous Christianity Today articles on abstinence include:

Bush Puts $135 Million Behind Abstinence from Sex"When our children face a choice between self-restraint and self-destruction, government should not be neutral." (March 13, 2002)
School Permits Abstinence Choice (April 5, 1999)
Where True Love Waits |How one woman dramatically changed the teen pregnancy rate in Rhea County, Tennessee. (March 1, 1999)

Christianity Today's sister publication Campus Life has an archive of stories for teens on sex and abstinence.

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