The American Civil Liberties Union and the ACLU of Mississippi today asked a federal court in Mississippi to end government funding of religion in the state’s abstinence-only-until-marriage program. The case was filed in the United States District Court for the Southern District on behalf of a teen and two community members who attended a state-sponsored abstinence summit in May of this year.
“The state of Mississippi cannot sponsor overtly religious events as part of its abstinence-only-until-marriage program,” said Brigitte Amiri, Senior Staff Attorney with the ACLU Reproductive Freedom Project. “This is not the first time the state has crossed the line in its abstinence programming, but we hope it will be the last. Instead of preaching, the state needs to start teaching youth how to make responsible and healthy decisions throughout their lives.”
As part of National Teen Pregnancy Prevention Month, the Mississippi Department of Human Services (MDHS) holds an annual teen abstinence summit each May. After last year’s summit, which included overt religious messages, the ACLU sent a letter to MDHS asking for assurances that future events would remain secular. MDHS did not respond to the ACLU’s letter and failed to address the legal concerns in this year’s event.
The 2009 summit featured religious themes and overtly Christian messages, including a lengthy presentation about the Ten Commandments by Judge John N. Hudson of the Adams County Court in Natchez, MS. Judge Hudson told the audience, “Abstain, God says, from promiscuous sex – thou shall not commit adultery. But why? Is not God being a killjoy? Did He not create this great gift which is so good and wonderful? Why would He tell us not to do it? He’s not. He’s telling us that He created this great and wonderful gift for a special and unique committed relationship that is to last forever.” The program also included several prayers and a performance to gospel songs by the Pilgrim Rest Mime Ministry.
“By using the summit to promote a religious message rather than offer health-related information, the state missed an important opportunity to help teens make healthy and smart decisions when it comes to sexuality,” said Kristy L. Bennett, Staff Attorney with the ACLU of Mississippi. “Study after study shows that abstinence-only-until-marriage approaches are ineffective at preventing teen pregnancy or the spread of sexually transmitted diseases. Given the high rates of teen pregnancy and HIV infection in Mississippi, the failings of this year’s summit are inexcusable.”
In Fiscal Years 2007 and 2008 MDHS received $1,428,753 each year in federal abstinence-only-until-marriage funds.
“Mississippi cannot continue to act like it is above the Constitution and repeatedly sponsor religious events with taxpayer money,” said Daniel Mach, Director of Litigation for the ACLU Program on Freedom of Religion and Belief.
Since 1996, Congress has appropriated more than 1.5 billion dollars for programs that focus solely on promoting abstinence and censoring information that young people need to make healthy and responsible decisions about sexuality. A 2007 congressionally mandated study found that teenagers who had taken abstinence-only courses were just as likely to have sex at the same mean age as other teens. Alternatively, studies show that curricula that stress waiting to have sex while providing information about effective contraceptive use can significantly delay the initiation of sex, reduce the frequency of sex and the number of sexual partners and increase condom or contraceptive use among sexually active teens.