"We want to make sure that being a Christian doesn't mean you have a disability," says Joel Oster, senior litigation counsel for the Alliance Defense Fund.
On Aug. 23, the Arizona-based law firm, champion of many right-wing causes, announced it was riding to the legal defense of Silver Ring Thing, an Ohio Township-based abstinence-only sex-education program. The program had its latest federal grant suspended on Aug. 22 by the government for employing "secular and religious components that are not adequately separated."
Although the Department of Health and Human Services stopped a $75,000 check to the group, it has already given more than $1 million in tax money to the program since 2003. Silver Ring Thing's Web site has long boasted of the number of kids who "have made commitments to Jesus Christ" as a result of the SRT sound-and-light show through which it promotes its abstinence message. The group also sells rings with a New Testament message and study Bibles, targeting the "unchurched."
Oster believes the funding was pulled as a direct result of a suit brought by the national ACLU against the federal government in May, charging that Silver Ring fails to fund only non-religious programming with its federal dollars. As the fed's letter put it, Silver Ring "may not have included adequate safeguards to clearly separate in time or location inherently religious activities from the federally funded activities."
"I know that what they're doing is nothing more than a tactic to make sure they're not sued again by the ACLU," says Oster of the government's move. The feds, he maintains, "never claimed that the Silver Ring Thing misspent any money; in fact they have been meticulous in their record keeping. We have communicated to the court that we will make sure any accounting safeguards they require will be put in place so that the group can continue to deliver its very important message."
Lorraine Kenny, public education coordinator of the ACLU's Reproductive Freedom Project, says the lawsuit will remain pending, although the HHS decision will likely negate any further court action.
Oster agrees, saying his group got involved to make sure Silver Ring is eligible for future public grants without fear of legal action.
"We certainly hope they will realize you can't use federal dollars to promote a religious program. There has to be a clear separation," says Oster, whose legal group has long promoted the inclusion of religious viewpoints in the public sphere.
Silver Ring has until Sept. 6 to present a "Corrective Action Plan," which the ADF will help them prepare. Then, ACLU's "manufactured lawsuit," Oster believes, will help the group receive more federal dollars than ever.