ACLU of Florida Demands Recall of State Health Department's Religious AIDS Brochure

Affiliate: ACLU of Florida
April 3, 2003 12:00 am

ACLU Affiliate
ACLU of Florida
Media Contact
125 Broad Street
18th Floor
New York, NY 10004
United States

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE

MIAMI–Saying that it is inappropriate for a public health agency to distribute religious material, the American Civil Liberties Union of Florida today called upon Florida health department officials to immediately recall AIDS education brochures that contain Biblical references and ask readers to “answer Jesus’ call” by reaching out to people with HIV and AIDS.

“While the state must respond to this public health crisis and find ways to stop the spread of the AIDS virus, the state must base its message on the very best medical and scientific information, rather than advocate a particular Christian set of beliefs,” said Howard L. Simon, Executive Director of the ACLU of Florida. “Sectarian messages are inappropriate for agencies of the State of Florida and should be left to church groups and others in the private sector.”

In a letter sent to Dr. John O. Agwunobi, Secretary of the Florida Department of Health, and Beth Swisher of the department’s Bureau of HIV/AIDS, Simon outlined ACLU concerns with the brochures, “A Christian Response to AIDS,” which were purchased and distributed by the Florida Department of Health.

The brochures, with the name and logo of the Florida Department of Health displayed prominently on the cover, were among the top six AIDS-related brochures and pamphlets purchased by the state from a single publisher between 2000 and 2001. However, documents obtained by the ACLU, as a result of public records requests, indicate that the brochures had been approved by the health department for purchase and distribution as recently as January 2002.

The ACLU contends that rather than focusing on preventative measures to help stem the spread of the HIV/AIDS virus, the 16-page brochure consists primarily of Bible verses and images of Jesus Christ healing the sick and encourages readers to refer to passages in Psalms, Matthew and the Book of Job “for more understanding of human suffering and its relationship to God.”

The brochure’s authors pose the rhetorical question: “Why should I learn about AIDS?” and the state health department’s response is: “Because Jesus calls on us to respond with love to everyone, especially those who are suffering.”

“The predominant message conveyed by the brochure is a sectarian religious one representing a single religious perspective, which is inappropriate for endorsement by any agency of the State government,” Simon’s letter reads.

The ACLU called on state officials to remove the brochure from the state-approved materials list, recall any of the pamphlets that bear the department’s name and logo and take steps to ensure that no state funds–either directly or indirectly–continue to be expended on similar sectarian materials.

The full text of the letter follows:

April 3, 2003

John O. Agwunobi, M.D., M.BA.
Secretary, Department of Health
4052 Bald Cypress Way, Bin# A00
Tallahassee, FL 32399-1701

Beth Swisher
Department of Health
Bureau of HIV/AIDS
4052 Bald Cypress Way, Bin #A09
Tallahassee, FL 32399-1715

Re: Florida Department of Health Pamphlet “A Christian Response to AIDS”

Dear Dr. Agwunobi and Ms. Swisher:

The American Civil Liberties Union of Florida recently received a brochure, now being circulated by your Department, entitled “A Christian Response to AIDS.” The name and logo of the Florida Department of Health is prominently displayed on the cover of the brochure. This brochure has been specifically approved by the Department for inclusion on a list of approved materials for purchase with state funds. From January 1, 2000, to May 7, 2001, the Department purchased 13,482 of these brochures for distribution. Of 128 AIDS-related brochures and pamphlets purchased from this one vendor, Channing Bete Publishers, “A Christian Response to AIDS” was among the largest orders placed by the State.

The predominant message conveyed by the brochure is a sectarian religious one, representing a single religious perspective, which is inappropriate for endorsement by any agency of government. The Department’s actions are clearly in violation of the First Amendment’s prohibition against the state’s endorsement of religion. “A Christian Response to AIDS” should never have been approved, purchased with state funds, and distributed by the state with the Florida Department of Health’s name and logo.

The purchase, production and distribution of written materials designed to further the public’s understanding of the AIDS/HIV public health crisis are essential tasks for the Florida Department of Health. A review of “A Christian Response to AIDS,” however, leads to the inescapable conclusion that the brochure is designed more to advocate a particular Christian set of beliefs than to further public education about AIDS.

“A Christian Response to AIDS” is certainly an appropriate choice for Christians who desire to purchase, distribute, and advance its sectarian message. However, it is wholly inappropriate for the Florida Department of Health to sponsor and promote this message.

The sixteen-page brochure does provide some factual and useful information regarding HIV and AIDS. For example, the brochure urges church groups to schedule lectures by health care experts (“Education is a key to overcoming fears and prejudices.” Page 12), and notes that “HIV is not spread by casual contact.” (Page 4). However, the brochure fails to include any information about steps that could be taken to prevent the spread of the virus.

Instead, the brochure primarily consists of Biblical references in support of an answer to the question “why should I learn about AIDS?” The brochure’s response to that question is “because Jesus calls on us to respond with love to everyone, especially those who are suffering.” (Page 3) The pamphlet also cites a passage from the Book of Matthew: “For I was hungry and you gave me food. I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink … I was sick and you took care of me. …” (Page 3)

The brochure goes on to assert that “people with HIV and AIDS need compassion,” but that “certain fears have limited our response.” It counsels that “in Jesus’ time, lepers, and others who were ill or disabled, were also treated as outcasts because of these same fears … but, Jesus’ response to the ill and disabled was full of compassion, healing and acceptance – not condemnation, fear or rejection. Jesus set the example for us to follow.” (Page 5) Again, citing Biblical verses, the Department’s brochure tells the reader that “our love for ourselves and our neighbors is a direct reflection of our love for God,” and recommends other verses to read “for more understanding of human suffering and its relationship to God.” (Page 5)

These proclamations are the predominate theme throughout the brochure, including a fundamental Christian tenet: “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.” This tenet is bounded by “THERE IS HOPE! Jesus is our hope!” (Page 7)

The continuous use of the word “our,” as well as “we” and “us,” can only convey the impression of state endorsed and state sponsored religion.

The center pages of the brochure (Pages 8 – 9) display the central message of “A Christian Response to AIDS,” namely that “JESUS CALLS ON US TO:

BE LOVING

God’s love is boundless. For us to experience and share God’s love, we must not limit our own love.

LOVE OUR NEIGHBORS AS OURSELVES

Jesus’ words and deeds inspire us to love as he loved – to respond to those in need as Jesus did.

WITNESS TO GOD’S PLAN FOR SALVATION

Through Jesus’ death and resurrection, believers are given eternal life. We are called to share this message with others.

BUILD PEACE AND SOCIAL JUSTICE

Jesus’ life proclaimed that human rights, dignity and peace come from God — we are stewards of these gifts.

Bible verses are cited for each of these messages and the reader is asked to “answer Jesus’ call! Reaching out to people with HIV and AIDS — and their families, friends and caregivers — is a way for each of us to grow in our relationship with Jesus Christ.” (Page 9)

While the Florida Department of Health must respond to the public health crisis and stem the spread of the HIV/AIDS virus, the State must base its message on the very best medical and scientific information. Sectarian messages are inappropriate for agencies of the State of Florida and should be left to church groups and others in the private sector for which this message is part of their mission.

We call upon the Department to take the following immediate steps to rectify this clear constitutional violation:

1. remove “A Christian Response to AIDS” from the state approved materials list;

2. recall any of these brochures that bear the Department’s name and logo; and

3. ensure that no state funds, either directly or indirectly, are expended in the future on this or similar publications.

It is clear from the documents we received that “A Christian Response to AIDS” brochure has been purchased and distributed by the Florida Department of Health, bearing the imprimatur of the Department, since May 2001. Additional documents indicate that the brochure was approved for purchase and distribution as recently as January 2002. Accordingly, we ask that you recall all copies of the brochure with the State Department imprimatur and cease placing any further orders.

Given the clear religious message presented by the State in these brochures, we expect that the Department will act immediately without the necessity of legal action. Please let us know within ten (10) days whether the Department will voluntarily resolve this matter by taking the above steps.

Sincerely,

Executive Director

Chair, Sen. Burt L. Saunders
Vice Chair, Sen. Dennis L. Jones
House Health Committee
Chair, Rep. Frank Farkas
Vice Chair, Rep. Ed Homan

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