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Louisiana abstinence program promotes religion, judge rules

WASHINGTON (BP)–The state of Louisiana violated the U.S. Constitution by promoting religion in its funding of sexual abstinence programs, a federal judge decided July 25.

Thomas Porteous, a judge in the Eastern District of Louisiana, ruled the Governor’s Program on Abstinence must halt grants to individuals or organizations that communicate religious messages “or otherwise advance religion in any way in the course of any event supported in whole or in part” by the program, The New Orleans Times-Picayune reported.

Ruling from New Orleans, Porteous cited several grants that constituted government establishment of religion, according to The Times-Picayune, including:

— A contract with the Roman Catholic Diocese of Lafayette, which said it had used abstinence funding for pro-life marches and prayer at abortion clinics.

— The “Just Say Whoa” drama group, that performed skits at secondary schools with a character named “Bible Guy.”

— A contract with the Southwest Louisiana Area Health Education Center, which sought funds for Bibles. A spokesman for the abstinence program, however, testified officials told the center it could not use its grant for that reason.

The ACLU filed suit against the program, which was initiated in 1999 with funds set aside under the 1996 welfare reform law, the newspaper reported.

In a written statement, Louisiana Gov. Mike Foster called it “a sad day when such a worthwhile program is attacked by the very people who are supposed to protect the interests of the citizens of Louisiana.”

“The program promotes abstinence until marriage as the healthiest choice with regard to sexuality,” said Foster, a Republican. “Many religious organizations also promote the same ideals, but I have always made it clear that the courts will not allow the use of state or federal funds to promote religion. Although I have not had a chance to review the ruling, my team and I are evaluating our legal options. We will immediately take steps to assure that the program is in compliance with the law.”

The ACLU and Planned Parenthood praised the opinion.

“Why are these groups promoting abstinence only? Because it’s a religiously based position,” said Julie Redman, president of Planned Parenthood of Louisiana, according to The Times-Picayune.

Recipients of abstinence grants are required to instruct young people that sexual abstinence is the sole dependable method of avoiding pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases.

The legal challenge of Louisiana’s program was the first of an abstinence program established under welfare reform, The Washington Post reported. The suit probably will not be the last against such an effort. The ACLU has begun collecting information on abstinence funds being used for religious purposes in other states, a spokesman said, according to The Post.

President Bush has requested Congress renew the $50 million granted annually for abstinence programs under the 1996 law, The Post reported. He also has asked for an increase of other federal abstinence funding from $40 million to $73 million, according to The Post.

It is not unconstitutional for religious organizations to receive some government grants, as long as they meet the test regarding their use established by the U.S. Supreme Court.

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