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Judge Halts Abstinence Program Funds

July 26, 2002|From Times Wire Services

NEW ORLEANS — A federal judge in Louisiana ruled Thursday that the state illegally used federal money to promote religion in its abstinence-only sex education programs, a decision that could jeopardize President Bush's ambitions for expanding the effort nationwide.

U.S. District Judge Thomas Porteous Jr. ordered the state to stop giving money to individuals or organizations that "convey religious messages or otherwise advance religion" with tax dollars. He said there was ample evidence that many of the groups participating in the Governor's Program on Abstinence were "furthering religious objectives."

Using government money to distribute Bibles, conduct prayer rallies outside clinics that provide abortions and perform skits with characters that preach Christianity violate the Constitution's separation of church and state, he ruled.

One group in its monthly report talked about using the Christmas message of Mary as a prime example of the virtue of abstinence.

"December was an excellent month for our program," the Rapides Station Community Ministries said in a report quoted by the court. "We were able to focus on the virgin birth and make it apparent that God's desire (sic) sexual purity as a way of life."

Republican Gov. Mike Foster expressed dismay over the decision and said he would review the state's legal options.

"It's a sad day when such a worthwhile program is attacked by the very people who are supposed to protect the interests of the citizens of Louisiana," he said.

The suit, filed in May by the American Civil Liberties Union, was the first legal challenge to abstinence-only programs created under the 1996 welfare reform law. Bush has asked Congress to extend the $50-million-a-year program and increase other federal abstinence grants from $40 million this year to $73 million next year.

Cities, states or organizations that receive the federal grants must use the money to teach abstinence as the only reliable way to prevent pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases. Supporters say abstinence education helps youngsters build character and develop the skills to "say no to sex." Grant recipients may not discuss contraception, except in the context of failure rates of condoms.

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