Sunday, February 26, 2006

Religious Program's Tax Funding Stopped

There is a program called the Silver Ring Thing that has as one of its goals promoting a reduction in teen pregnancy through abstinence. That’s all well and good.

In communities such as Edinburgh, teenage pregnancy has become epidemic. In some schools, being pregnant is almost a status symbol.

And, of course, there’s show-and-tell time when the pregnancy is over and the new teen mom brings her bundle of joy to school to show to her classmates.

The Silver Ring Thing is a nationwide Christian-based program that goes into churches and puts on shows that include music, comedy skits, and messages about staying abstinent. Participants are given silver rings and are asked to make a pledge to remain abstinent from sex until they are married.

The rings are inscribed with a Bible verse encouraging Christians to remain holy and refrain from sexual sin.

Well, that’s all fine a good, unless your belief system doesn’t identify premarital sex as a sin. And even if it doesn’t, I think most of us can agree that young teens that are still in school should not be having sex.

There really isn’t anything wrong with the Silver Ring Thing program, except for the way that it has been funded. The Bush administration has given the program more than $1 million over the past three years to fund its proselytizing activities. Teens who attend the program are invited to testify for Jesus.

The American Civil Liberties Union sued the federal government for misuse of public funds. Last week, the Bush administration agreed to stand down and put an end to taxpayer funding of the program.

“Public funds were being used to fund a road show, really, to convert teens to Christianity,” said Julie Sternberg, an ACLU attorney.

The ACLU has no problem with the program itself, as long as taxpayers don’t have to pay for it. And now, the program can continue with private donations as its source of income.

The Alliance Defense Fund represented the Silver Ring Thing program in court. It is a religious organization that represents its clients rights to, “hear and speak the truth,” as its Web site proclaims.

Also on its Web site, the Alliance Defense Fund states, “We rely solely upon God's redemptive grace for our existence, our vision, and our sustenance, trusting in His sovereignty as we seek to convey hope to all we serve.”

Promoting teen abstinence is laudable, whether it’s done using prudish religious dogma or encouraged with less formal pragmatism. But if public funds are used to fund teen abstinence programs, those programs should be strictly secular in nature.

The Alliance Defense Fund lawyers say that teens could choose between a religious program and a secular one. But since the programs are held in a church environment, and since the organization itself is Christian in nature, there was probably very little actual choice involved.

The ACLU victory is a tiny step in the battle to keep Bush from turning this country into a theocracy run by Christian fundamentalists like him. But it was a victory, nonetheless.

Americans who value true religious freedom need to keep plugging away to thwart further efforts by Bush to indoctrinate America with his own brand of morality.

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