The American Civil Liberties Union has filed suit against the Department of Health and Human Services, alleging the government has improperly used taxpayer dollars to support an abstinence education program that promotes Christianity. Since 2003, the Silver Ring Thing--an offshoot of the John Guest Evangelistic Team, a Sewickley, Pa.-based Christian ministry--has received more than $1 million from HHS as part of the Bush administration's program to expand abstinence-only education. Though many HHS grant recipients are affiliated with religious groups, they are forbidden from using federal money for proselytizing.
Filing in federal court in Boston, the ACLU said SRT uses the money to encourage young people to commit themselves to Jesus Christ. Only HHS--not SRT--officials are named in the suit, which seeks to stop federal funding to SRT. "The courts have repeatedly said taxpayer dollars cannot be used to promote religion," said Julie Sternberg, an attorney with ACLU's Reproductive Freedom Project. "[SRT] blatantly violates this principle."
In a statement, SRT president Denny Pattyn described the program as "faith-based" but insisted that grant money had been appropriately used at all times. According to SRT, more than 30,000 youths in dozens of cities have committed themselves to premarital abstinence after attending its three-hour presentations. The latest SRT newsletter details the number of teens who "made commitments to Christ" after recent presentations in Detroit and Immokalee, Fla.
The ACLU said youths attending SRT seminars are given the opportunity to split up into secular and religious groups during the event's final segment. Its suit contends, however, that students are encouraged to select the religious option and to enroll in a Bible-based follow-up program. SRT makes no effort to use HHS money only for secular purposes, the ACLU alleges.
HHS spokesman Chris Downing said the agency does not comment on pending litigation. (AP)