October 2005 Church & State | People & Events

The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) in August suspended funding to a sexual-abstinence program aimed at teenagers after allegations that it included religious content.

Officials with the program, called the Silver Ring Thing, were informed that a grant of $75,000 was being suspended until the group submits a corrective action plan. HHS regulations say funded organizations “may not engage in inherently religious activities, such as worship, religious instruction or proselytization.”

The Silver Ring Thing is an offshoot of a Christian ministry based in Sewick­ley, Pa., called the John Guest Evangelis­tic Team. The group combines music, skits and video presentations to promote an ab­sti­nence-based message. Teens who de­cide to remain abstinent are given silver rings.

“Our review indicates that the [Silver Ring Thing] may not have included adequate safeguards to clearly separate in time or location inherently religious activities from the federally-funded activities,” Harry Wilson, assistant commissioner of the HHS Family and Youth Services Bureau, wrote in a letter to the group.

Suspension of the grant follows a lawsuit filed by the American Civil Liberties Union in May. In court documents, the ACLU charged that the HHS has routinely given taxpayer support to groups that use it to spread conservative Christian messages.

Steve Barber, a spokesman for the HHS Administration on Children and Families, told The Roundtable on Religion and Social Welfare Policy that the agency routinely conducts inspections of funded groups.

“Whether it’s an abstinence-education program, Head Start, mentoring children of prisoners program…from time to time our regional offices will send staff to review what’s going on in the field,” Barber said.

But critics of the faith-based approach pointed out that federal supervision of such programs is at best minimal and in most cases non-existent. HHS decided to crack down on the Silver Ring Thing, they said, only because of the ACLU lawsuit.

Joel Oster, an attorney with the Alliance Defense Fund, a legal group founded by several Religious Right bigwigs, insisted that the abstinence ministry has done nothing wrong but said the organization is prepared to move forward if government funding is shut off.

“This is from a strictly Christian perspective, but if God chooses to close the door on federal funding, then he will open another one with private funding,” Oster said.