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Ring around the law 

Abstinence program found to violate separation of church and state

click to enlarge Brianna Vasquez, Deanna March and Casey Monsees - proudly sport chastity rings at a 2004 rally in Denver. ? - Federal funding for the Silver Ring Thing abstinence - program recently was discontinued. - FILE PHOTO
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  • Brianna Vasquez, Deanna March and Casey Monsees proudly sport chastity rings at a 2004 rally in Denver. ? Federal funding for the Silver Ring Thing abstinence program recently was discontinued.

Thanks to the Silver Ring Thing abstinence program, thousands of Colorado teenagers have pledged themselves to strict sexual chastity until marriage. As a symbol of their commitment, they wear silver rings etched with "1 Thessalonians 4:3-4," a reference to a biblical verse that reads:

"God wants you to be holy, so you should keep clear of all sexual sin. Then each of you will control your body and live in holiness and honor."

Silver Ring Thing's embrace of this New Testament verse is among the reasons the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services recently yanked the program's federal funding.

Since 2003, Pennsylvania-based Silver Ring Thing has received more than $1 million from the federal government to travel the country, staging "chastity rallies." (See "The young and the sexless," March 18, 2004, at csindy.com.)

But last month, the department announced that the program must strip the explicit religious components from its message in order to be considered for future government dollars.

The decision concludes a lawsuit filed by the American Civil Liberties Union, which accused Silver Ring Thing of violating church-state separation. As evidence, the ACLU pointed to the Bible verse inscribed on the rings, and the tendency of speakers to reference Jesus and the Bible during chastity rallies.

"The use of taxpayer dollars to fund such overtly religious programs is flatly unconstitutional," reads an ACLU memo dated March 1.

Katie Groke, Colorado Springs-based spokeswoman for Planned Parenthood of the Rocky Mountains, hopes the Silver Ring Thing decision will shift attitudes toward more comprehensive sex education, including information about condoms and contraceptives.

"Only medically accurate, age-appropriate, comprehensive sex ed allows for responsible decision-making," Groke says. "Politicians and the government should not deny teens the information they need to protect themselves, and information their parents would probably want them to know."

A study just released by the U.S. House of Representatives Committee on Government Reform found that 11 key abstinence-funding recipients disseminate "major errors and distortions about public health information." Yet Congress has pumped more than $900 million into abstinence efforts since 1997.

Father Bill Carmody, a Colorado Springs pastor who divides his time between St. Joseph and Holy Family churches, says the Silver Ring Thing decision isn't likely to hamper local abstinence efforts.

Carmody has been staging chastity rallies in Colorado for a decade, and says he's never accepted government funding. His organization, which attracted 5,000 young people to Denver for its annual rally last month, also distributes rings, paying about $4 for each one.

The pastor says he'd rather forgo federal cash and remain "unapologetic for our religious beliefs" than wind up in Silver Ring Thing's now-tenuous position.

"If we start taking government money, you become dependent on government money," he says, adding that with the election of a new president in two years, fiscal inclinations toward abstinence-only education could change drastically.

Groke hopes that indeed is the case.

"We disagree with the Bush administration's decisions around abstinence-only funding," she says. A secular message of abstinence should be a piece of the message, she notes, "but studies show that abstinence alone is not effective. Information that is wrong, or too literal or too late, can result in life-threatening consequences."

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