ACLU: Court Decision Fatal Blow for ‘Chastity Bill’
WASHINGTON (AP) _ The American Civil Liberties Union and some religious leaders today applauded a federal court decision stopping federal grants to religious groups for teaching teen-age sex education.
They called the ruling ″a significant victory for federal taxpayers and the Constitution.″
″Falling neatly between Passover and Easter, this decision upholds the separation of church and state, thereby protecting both government and religion; and it is a stunning victory for the First Amendment in this bicentennial year of the Bill of Rights,″ said Janet Benshoof, the ACLU’s lead attorney on the case.
On Wednesday, U.S. District Judge Charles R. Richey ruled that the 1981 Adolescent Family Life Act has ″the primary effect of advancing religion and fosters an excessive entanglement between government and religion.″
Dubbed the ″Chastity Bill″ when it was debated in Congress, the law provides money for sex education and counseling, research, prevention services and care for pregnant teen-agers.
The legislation, which drew a wide spectrum of congressional support, it was designed to encourage self-discipline as a way of discouraging teen-age sex and pregnancy. It prohibits groups that receive funding from recommending abortions.
″Public money must never go to further religious dogmas,″ said Tracy Salkowitz, regional director of the American Jewish Congress. ″The effect of the Family Life act was just that.″
Dr. Emmett W. Cocke Jr., a Methodist minister from Virginia and a plaintiff in the case, said the court’s decision ″will be a celebrated event in terms of religious freedom, religious toleration as well as civil liberties.″
Cocke added that ″religious people ought to be celebrating, for it affirms religious conviction as it ought to be affirmed.″
The judge noted that the law finances ″counseling-type services whose specific content may be determined by the religious organization itself.″ Counseling is ″even more susceptible than teaching to the intentional or inadvertent advancement of religion,″ the ruling said.
It rejects the idea of regulating the groups to ensure that they do not promote religion, saying that would be an unwarranted government intrusion on religion.
If upheld by the Surpeme Court, said Ms. Benshoof in a telephone interview Wednesday night, it would be the first time a federal statute is declared unconstitutional because of the prohibition against government establishment of a religion.
The ruling gets an automatic review by the Supreme Court since it overturns a federal statute, she said.
″The implications are widespread. It is a major blow to certain idealogical forces that wanted to enact the Family Protection Act. The ‘chastity act’ has been hit with a fatal blow,″ said Ms. Benshoof, who argued the case for the ACLU.
She said it is the first time a federal court has addressed the question of whether it is constitutional to fund religious organizations to conduct sex education.
Richey’s ruling only prohibited funding under the act for religious organizations, but the judge gave both sides 30 days to argue whether the rest of the law can still stand or whether the whole program administered by the Department of Health and Human Services should be thrown out.
HHS spokesman Chuck Kline said only a small percentage of the $15 million set aside for the adolescent family planning grants has gone to religious groups.
″This will not have a major impact on anything we are doing,″ Kline said.
Ms. Benshoof said much of the funding goes to local governments that, in turn, pass it on to religious groups. She said the ruling could also affect funding of other government agencies that goes to religious organizations.
She said the Louisiana-based Families of the Americas Foundation would be barred from receiving any more funds to teach family planning abroad and might also lose the millions of dollars it gets from the Agency for International Development for other purposes.
Grants under the law also finance pregnancy testing and adoption and referral services for pregnant teen-agers.
The ruling was made in a lawsuit by the American Jewish Congress