Federal Funds For Abstinence Group Withheld

By Ceci Connolly
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, August 23, 2005

The Bush administration yesterday suspended a federal grant to the Silver Ring Thing abstinence program, saying it appears to use tax money for religious activities.

Officials at the Department of Health and Human Services ordered the group to submit a "corrective action plan" if it hopes to receive an expected $75,000 grant this year.

In a letter to the program director, Harry Wilson, associate commissioner of the Family and Youth Services Bureau, concluded that the project funded with federal dollars "includes both secular and religious components that are not adequately safeguarded."

The action comes three months after the American Civil Liberties Union filed a lawsuit against HHS, accusing the administration of using tax dollars to promote Christianity. In documents filed in federal court in Boston, the ACLU alleged that the activities, brochures and Web site of Silver Ring Thing were "permeated with religion" and use "taxpayer dollars to promote religious content, instruction and indoctrination."

Teenage graduates of the program sign a covenant "before God Almighty" to remain virgins and earn a silver ring inscribed with a Bible passage reminding them to "keep clear of sexual sin." Many of its events are held at churches.

In filings with the Internal Revenue Service, the organization describes its mission as "evangelistic ministry" with an emphasis on "evangelistic crusade planning."

Representatives of the Pennsylvania-based nonprofit describe Silver Ring Thing as a "faith-based" group but dispute charges it has commingled its public funds with religious activities.

"Any religious teaching that goes on is separate in time and place from what the government is funding," said Joel Oster, senior litigation counsel at the Alliance Defense Fund, which is representing the Silver Ring Thing. "They offer a religious program and they offer a secular program; kids can choose which one they want to go to."

In an advertisement on its Web site for a set of educational materials on DVD, Silver Ring Thing promises: "A secular program is also in development."

The ACLU declared a partial victory yesterday but said it will continue to monitor the group's activities.

"We're really pleased the government has recognized Silver Ring Thing was misusing public dollars to promote its own faith over all others," said senior staff attorney Julie Sternberg. "It's improper for the federal government to underwrite a national roadshow designed to convert teenagers to a particular faith."

HHS officials would not elaborate beyond the letter.

© 2005 The Washington Post Company