Capital Commentary is the weekly current-affairs publication of CPJ, written to encourage the pursuit of public justice.

A Silver Lining in the Clouded "Silver Ring Thing" Case

Stanley Carlson-Thies


March 20, 2006

Just how religious can social services be that are funded by your tax dollars? A detailed statement about this is now in circulation. That statement is being touted by some as articulating the constitutional requirements and the Bush administration's rules. In fact, the statement does not represent either one.

The statement is a list of required "safeguards" that stem from a February settlement between the Massachusetts ACLU and the federal Department of Health and Human Services (HHS). The Massachusetts group had accused HHS of violating the Constitution by funding a sexual abstinence program offered by the Silver Ring Thing (SRT), a faith-based organization. In the settlement, HHS agreed to ban SRT from federal funds unless HHS can ensure that SRT will follow every detail in the safeguards.

The safeguards focus on ways to keep separate the abstinence activities the federal government can support, which have to be open to all and not use religious messages, from SRT's Bible-centered abstinence program. Such separation is, indeed, the current requirement, when the government, rather than the teen, decides which organization will provide the service and be paid the federal money. But in the safeguards document this requirement of separation is pressed to an extreme that implies a very narrow view of religion and treats everything government touches as something that must be totally stripped of religion.

Heeding the extreme safeguards would mean that if a teen asks about the Bible and sex, the abstinence teacher should just tell her to shut up. It would mean that, in taxpayer-supported abstinence classes, everyone would have to pretend that sexual matters can be adequately discussed without any reference at all to the teachings of the religions to which participants belong. Such restrictions go beyond even the Clinton administration's rules on religion in public schools.

Why such rigid safeguards? The settlement in the SRT case demanded these excessive details of separation because, as both sides agreed, SRT had been careless about the way it related its biblical abstinence activities to the government-funded program. The federal regulations actually did not forbid SRT to offer religious abstinence training, but only required that such training be kept apart from the abstinence teaching funded by tax dollars when teens don't have a choice of messenger.

Here's the vital point. As the settlement itself says, its micromanaging rules apply only to SRT and not to any other organization. The general standards that do apply to the federal government's faith-based partners are the administration's actual regulations, not the highly restrictive glosses of the safeguards document. And note this: by entering into the settlement, the Massachusetts ACLU implicitly dropped its original charge that it was unconstitutional for HHS to fund faith-based organizations to teach sexual abstinence.

Nevertheless, more clarity is needed. In order to avoid additional controversies like this, and to keep such restrictive safeguards from becoming the de facto general standard, the Bush administration needs to publish its own detailed interpretation of how the special religious activities of a faith-based organization should be kept separate from federally funded social services. Something even bigger is also needed. For more clarity and realistic rules, the US Supreme Court needs to adopt a new First Amendment doctrine that better protects religious freedom for both providers and participants. Government isn't church, but social services are never neutral or devoid of fundamental commitments. And religion isn't irrelevant to the human condition. In the meantime, the SRT safeguards remain just that: highly restrictive rules that apply only to SRT.

—Stanley Carlson-Thies, Director of Social Policy Studies
    Center for Public Justice


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Capital Commentary is a weekly current-affairs publication of the Center for Public Justice. Published since 1996, it is written to encourage the pursuit of justice. Commentaries do not necessarily represent an official position of the Center for Public Justice but are intended to help advance discussion. Articles, with attribution, may be republished according to our publishing guidelines.”