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Public school abstinence program targeted by ACLU

WASHINGTON (BP)–A federally funded abstinence-only sex education program in Louisiana is the subject of an American Civil Liberties Union lawsuit, based on allegations that the program employs religious messages, which the ACLU claims violates the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment.

The lawsuit, which was filed in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Louisiana, targets the Governor’s Program on Abstinence (GPA), according to CNSNews.com.

However, Louisiana’s coordinator of the GPA, Dan Richey, called the lawsuit “frivolous” and “balderdash.”

“The lawsuit is totally bogus,” Richey said. “What they are saying is that some of the money made available to community-based projects is used to promote religion, which is absolute balderdash.”

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Gov. Mike Foster (R) began the project in 1997 with funds appropriated by Congress as part of the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act of 1996, which authorized $50 million per year for five years to be used for abstinence-only sex education programs.

The Louisiana program was given $1.6 million a year for five years to lower the state’s teenage pregnancy rate, which is ranked ninth in the U.S. In the past school year, volunteers taught some 10,000 seventh grade students in 18 parishes statewide the program’s abstinence-only sex education curriculum.

Abstinence clubs in high schools and community-based projects account for the other funds.

Joe Cook, executive director of the ACLU of Louisiana, said that upon his organization’s investigation into the GPA, there were several instances where local organizations used public money for the abstinence programs that included Christian themes in conveying the abstinence message.

“The goal of the suit is to make sure that [the GPA] complies with the law, that they stop funding programs that preach religion in the abstinence-only education,” Cook said. “We want them to take the appropriate steps to make sure that tax dollars are not being used to preach religion.”

Cook also argued the ACLU has no evidence that abstinence-only sex education reduces pregnancy rates better than comprehensive programs that include information on contraception.

But Richey said in cases where religious groups request funds to teach the abstinence curriculum, they have to sign a contract guaranteeing the curriculum will be taught with “secular purposes” in mind.

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He admitted the contract doesn’t guarantee religious messages don’t slip through the cracks.

“When you have hundreds of contracts and thousands of volunteers, there may be a case or two where someone may get carried away, but it is not endorsed by us,” Richey said. “All the other accusations and allegations in the lawsuit are half-truths and distortions.”

He said that the timing of the lawsuit is everything, since the abstinence debate in Washington is so heated right now. Congress is currently debating whether the $50 million should be reauthorized.

“They have manufactured all these allegations in effect and timed it to where it could be part of this national debate as they oppose President Bush’s proposal for extending the federal funding for another five years,” Richey said.

“It comes down to the fact that we are doing some things that are really exciting and are really having an impact, which is scary to [the ACLU],” he said.
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Pierce is a staff writer with www.CNSNews.com. Used by permission.