Friday, May 18, 2007

ACLU Seeks Inquiry on Misuse of Funds for Abstinence Ed

In the wake of long-suspected findings that abstinence-only education is an abject failure, earlier this week the Register-Guard reported that the ACLU has asked state and federal HHS departments to investigate what they claim is a misuse of public funds, in support of the curriculum championed by religious conservatives:
The American Civil Liberties Union has sent letters to state and federal officials charging that the Lane Pregnancy Support Center in Eugene has acted unconstitutionally in regard to its "Stop and Think" abstinence-only sex education program, which receives public tax dollars.

The abstinence program, offered in dozens of classrooms at Lane County middle and high schools since its inception in 1991, has expanded to other states.

In a "stop and think" contract signed in 2002, the Northern Hills Pregnancy Care Center in Spearfish, S.D., agreed to a requirement that presenters and supervisors of its curriculum "possess an authentic relationship with Jesus Christ."

The contract further required that presenters "possess knowledge of the word of God, and the ability to communicate its truth; exhibit a loving and merciful spirit; (and) attend a Bible-believing local church or fellowship."

The national ACLU and ACLU of Oregon have asked the federal Department of Health and Human Services and the Oregon Department of Human Services to "remedy this misuse of public funds" resulting from the requirement that all program presenters "hold particular religious beliefs."

"Both the federal and Oregon constitutions are violated when a direct grant of government dollars funds specifically religious activities," said Jann Carson, associate director of ACLU of Oregon, in her May 2 letter to the state Department of Human Services.

The Christian-based Lane Pregnancy Support Center has a main office in Eugene and satellite offices in Junction City, Cottage Grove and Springfield.

The center has offered its abstinence program to schools throughout Lane County, and made it available through other pregnancy care centers in Salem, Coos Bay and seven other Oregon cities.
While the failure of abstinence ed is to my mind very nearly a closed case (having had personal experience evaluating similar programs in Virginia during the 90s), the issue of whether presenters in Oregon are making the curriculum into religious instruction is murkier. It would seem that the Lane Center may be caught in the middle on this one, having agreed to a contract to use the "Stop and Think" materials, but apparently without any such clause of religious fealty for presenters. Brick Lantz (great name!), President of the center's board, claims that religious references are strictly prohibited in their administration of the curriculum--and no one as yet has contradicted him.

That said, any time you have a religious group creating educational materials for use in public schools, you're asking for trouble--you may not be crossing the line, but as Lantz put it, "because it's value-based, kids get this perception that it is (about religion and God) without us mentioning any of those things." And you can't help but become a little suspicious when the center's executive director attempts to answer questions of either efficacy or propriety with feedback data: "We have boxes and boxes of teacher and student evaluations, and they love us."

We'll see how this one pans out, but the legal inquiry begs the more pertinent question: why are school districts still using a system that doesn't actually work, and may in fact cause greater incidence of disease and pregnancy through ignorance of proper reproductive health?