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Lawsuit Challenges Abstinence Education Program

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

The American Civil Liberties Union has sued the federal government over a sex education program it says promotes religion. The ACLU alleges that the Department of Health and Human Services violated the Constitution when it gave more than a million dollars to the program, which is called the Silver Ring Thing. NPR's Barbara Bradley Hagerty reports.

BARBARA BRADLEY HAGERTY reporting:

A decade ago, Denny Patten realized that when it comes to abstinence, the medium is the message.

(Soundbite of music)

Reverend DENNY PATTEN: Hi, I'm Denny Patten and this is the Silver Ring Thing, a sexual abstinence program that really works.

HAGERTY: And so starting in Arizona in 1995, the youth minister began rolling out programs complete with hard rock, light shows and comedy skits to encourage kids to abstain from sex until marriage. At the end of the program, the kids are encouraged to buy a silver ring to wear until the day they are married as a commitment to remain abstinent. Last year after the program went to England, Denny Patten told the BBC that the message is overtly religious.

(Soundbite of BBC program)

Rev. PATTEN: We teach what the Bible teaches about marriage and we teach kids about how God blesses marriages. We think part of the problem is the fact that that's no longer in vogue.

HAGERTY: And the show has gone on the road trying to reverse that view. It's held events in 11 states and has several more scheduled. That would have been fine except that two years ago the Silver Ring Thing began receiving money from the Health and Human Services Department and that, according to Julie Sternberg, a senior attorney at the ACLU, is a problem.

Ms. JULIE STERNBERG (Attorney): The Silver Ring Thing has been quite public about the fact that it considers its abstinence education as a vehicle for bringing students to Christ, in which case it should never have received federal funding.

HAGERTY: The ACLU sued the HHS in a federal court in Boston yesterday, saying that the government has been promoting religion through the Silver Ring Thing to the tune of more than a million dollars in the past two years. Sternberg says the three-hour program is classic Christian evangelism.

Ms. STERNBERG: The Silver Ring Thing members testify about accepting Jesus Christ. They quote extensively from the Bible. The urge the students who are participating to ask the Lord Jesus Christ to come into their lives.

HAGERTY: And it even tallies the number of kids who make a commitment to Christ on its Web site, which shows that 65 kids did so at an event in Florida, for example, and 98 did in Detroit. And she says the follow-up program, which the ACLU alleges also receives government money, is Bible-centered and places Jesus front and center. Ira Lupu, a law professor at George Washington University, says if all of these allegations are true...

Professor IRA LUPU (George Washington University): This is just a slam-dunk case for the ACLU. There is no way that courts in the United States under the current law are going to uphold direct government funding of a religious-content abstinence program.

HAGERTY: Officials at the Justice Department and HHS declined to comment. The Silver Ring Thing issued a statement saying the federal funds have been directed into the proper--that is, secular--channels. Ira Lupu notes that under President Bush, many very worthy religious groups have been encouraged to apply for government grants without knowing the constitutional pitfalls.

Prof. LUPU: I've been worried for a long time that the federal government is not giving adequate guidance and direction to faith groups about what those groups may or may not do with the government's money.

HAGERTY: He says several groups have been sued--a nursing program in Montana, a mentoring program in Phoenix, a welfare program in Milwaukee--only to find themselves on their own and their federal funds cut off.

Barbara Bradley Hagerty, NPR News.

MONTAGNE: This is NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Barbara Bradley Hagerty is the religion correspondent for NPR, reporting on the intersection of faith and politics, law, science and culture. Her New York Times best-selling book, "Fingerprints of God: The Search for the Science of Spirituality," was published by Riverhead/Penguin Group in May 2009. Among others, Barb has received the American Women in Radio and Television Award, the Headliners Award and the Religion Newswriters Association Award for radio reporting.