ACLU Sues HHS Over Abstinence Aid

By Ceci Connolly
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, May 17, 2005

The American Civil Liberties Union filed suit yesterday against the Department of Health and Human Services, accusing the Bush administration of spending federal tax dollars on an abstinence education program that promotes Christianity.

Filed in federal court in Boston, the lawsuit alleges that the programs and educational materials distributed by Silver Ring Thing are "permeated with religion" and use "taxpayer dollars to promote religious content, instruction and indoctrination."

Silver Ring Thing is a Pennsylvania-based nonprofit that promotes abstinence until marriage through its Web site, brochures, videos and seminars. Teenage graduates of the program, after signing a covenant "before God Almighty" to remain virgins, receive a silver ring inscribed with a Bible passage that the group renders as "God wants you to be holy, so you should keep clear of sexual sin."

"Who would have ever thought we would see the day when promoting sexual abstinence among students would become an opportunity to communicate the Good News of the Gospel," the group's newsletter states. "Through our Silver Ring Thing program, students who are longing for sexual purity have the chance to begin again."

The organization has received $1 million in federal grants since summer 2003 and expects to receive $255,000 this year.

"The federal government should not underwrite the religious indoctrination of Massachusetts students," said Carol Rose, executive director of the Massachusetts ACLU. "The Silver Ring Thing is nothing more than a vehicle for converting young people to Christianity."

In a statement, founder Denny Pattyn said he had not seen the lawsuit but in general "is aware of the proper designation of the federal funds received and asserts that these monies have been properly directed."

Silver Ring Thing, also known as the John Guest Evangelistic Team, describes its mission as "evangelistic ministry" with an emphasis on "evangelistic crusade planning," according to IRS filings.

"The mission is to saturate the United States with a generation of young people who have taken a vow of sexual abstinence until marriage and put on the silver ring," according to the group's newsletter. "This mission can only be achieved by offering a personal relationship with Jesus Christ as the best way to live a sexually pure life."

The ACLU's Reproductive Freedom Project won a similar case in 2002 against the governor of Louisiana for sponsoring a state abstinence program that furthered "religious objectives" and used taxpayer money to "advance religion."

HHS declined to discuss yesterday's filing because it does not comment on pending litigation, a spokesman said.

© 2005 The Washington Post Company