ACLU History: Teach Our Children Well

Document Date: September 1, 2010

The ACLU has also fought to ensure that young people get the information they need to make healthy decisions about sex and sexuality. In Bowen v. Kendrick (1988), the ACLU challenged the Adolescent Family Life Act (AFLA), a federal statute that authorized the use of federal funds to teach the value of ‘chastity’ in the context of social and educational services for teens. The ACLU contended that AFLA violates the constitutionally mandated separation of church and state because it requires applicants to explain how they would involve religious organizations (among other groups) when providing services, it allows religious organizations to receive funds, and its programs and goals coincide with certain religious beliefs. The Court upheld the law and said that public dollars can flow to religiously affiliated groups so long as the dollars are used to underwrite only non-religious programming. To date, Bowen is the first and only case the Court has decided addressing government-funded abstinence-only programs.

By 1996, the federal government began pouring more and more money into programs that promote abstinence until marriage and censor vital health care information, create a hostile environment for gay and lesbian students, reinforce gender stereotypes, and in some instances continue to promote one religious perspective. In May 2005, the ACLU filed a lawsuit challenging federal funding of a nationwide abstinence-only-until-marriage program, the Silver Ring Thing, that was rife with religious content. In its own words, ‘The mission of Silver Ring is to saturate the United States with a generation of young people who have taken a vow of sexual abstinence until marriage . . . . This mission can only be achieved by offering a personal relationship with Jesus Christ as the best way to live a sexually pure life.’ The lawsuit, ACLU of Massachusetts v. Leavitt, brought swift results: In August 2005, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) suspended the Silver Ring Thing’s funding, pending corrective or other action. And in February 2006, the parties reached a settlement in which HHS agreed that any future funding would be contingent on the Silver Ring Thing’s compliance with federal law prohibiting the use of federal funds to support religious activities. Soon after, HHS released new guidelines for all abstinence-only-until-marriage grantees to ensure that government funds will not be used to promote religion.

In addition to success in the courts, we have also celebrated victories in school districts throughout the country where parents working with the ACLU were able to change their local school board policies to keep harmful abstinence-only programming out of their schools, and state advocates have been able to enact important statewide policy changes. After years of working with our national partners to end federal funding of abstinence-only programming, by 2010 we succeeded in getting Congress to defund the bulk of these programs and to introduce new funding streams designed to give young people the information they need to lead healthy lives.

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» Bowen v. Kendrick (
» ACLU of Massachusetts v. Sebelius
» Helping Teens Make Healthy and Responsible Decisions about Sex
» Responsible Spending: Real Sex Ed for Real Lives

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