Jewish World Review May 10, 2002 / 28 Iyar, 5762

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ACLU challenges abstinence program

http://www.jewishworldreview.com -- NEW ORLEANS (UPI) -- The American Civil Liberties Union Thursday challenged a Louisiana state program that uses federal funds to pay for religiously oriented abstinence-only education in the first legal action of its kind.

Republican Gov. Mike Foster was named as the lead defendant in the lawsuit, which alleges the Louisiana Governor's Program on Abstinence violates a 1988 decision of the U.S. Supreme Court that public funds cannot be used to promote religious views.

The lawsuit is the first challenge to a program funded by federal abstinence-only money made available through the 1996 Welfare Reform Act. The federal government currently provides more than $100 million a year to abstinence-only programs.

"The principle of religious liberty is violated when public money is used to promote religious beliefs," said Catherine Weiss, director of the ACLU Reproductive Freedom Project. "This kind of misuse of public funds has a long history in abstinence-only programs, even though the law requires that their content be secular."

In Baton Rouge, Foster said the civil rights group should be ashamed for filing the lawsuit.

"This is typical of what I expect from the ACLU. President Bush and I strongly support abstinence education to restore healthy lifestyles for teenagers and adults," he said.

"The ACLU has opposed abstinence education from day one. Last year during a time of drought, the ACLU attacked me for praying for rain. Today, during an epidemic of sexually transmitted diseases, the ACLU opposed by abstinence program.

"Shame on them!"

The Louisiana program, which operates on government money, has proclaimed in its own materials that "it's time to restore our Judeo-Christian heritage in America," according to the ACLU. Grants have been issued for skits, revivals, and a radio show.

"In one case they paid the (Roman Catholic) Diocese of Lafayette to pray in front of an abortion clinic so young women would find Jesus and wouldn't have to get abortions," said Joe Cook, executive director of the Louisiana ACLU.

Cook said the issue is not abstinence, but the government funding of the programs in a religious setting, which is prohibited by the Constitution's separation of church and state.

"We are a country of over 1,500 religious groups and growing and religious freedom thrives in this country because of our religious freedom," he said. "People who are of different beliefs don't want their money used to promote somebody else's."

In 1988, the ACLU challenged one of the federal statutes providing abstinence-only funding in the Bowen v. Kendrick case. The court held that "any use of public funds to promote religious doctrines violates the (Constitution)"

The ACLU suit seeks a permanent injunction to halt the practice in Louisiana.

Louisiana receives $1.6 million in federal funds annually for the program.

Under the 1996 welfare reform law, the federal government spends $50 million annually on state block grants to "teach an unambiguous abstinence message to youth," according to the Washington Post. Bush is currently seeking $88 million to expand two other abstinence programs that provide community funds.

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