On May 16, the American Civil Liberties Union sued the federal government for funding a local abstinence-only sex education program, Silver Ring Thing, whose presentations include Christian evangelizing. On May 18, says state ACLU Legal Director Vic Walczak, the Ohio Township-based group reacted: "Silver Ring just purged all religious content from their Web site," Walczak said.
Gone, for instance, are tallies posted after each Silver Ring program of the number of kids who "have made commitments to Jesus Christ" following a show.
But that won't be enough to stop the lawsuit, filed in federal court in Boston against the secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services and other officials responsible for funding Silver Ring Thing with more than $1 million in the past three years, thus violating the First Amendment. (Silver Ring founder and head Denny Pattyn did not respond to several requests for comment.) As detailed earlier this year in City Paper (Main Feature, "The Lord and The Ring," Feb. 9), Silver Ring uses a high-tech sound-and-light show to convince pre-college students that abstinence is the only way to avoid pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases. Although Silver Ring also offers a short, secular segment, the group bills itself as a ministry.
According to the suit, the ACLU seeks to prove that Silver Ring "is so permeated by religion that any secular activities it has cannot be separated from its sectarian ones." To prove its case, the ACLU points to Silver Ring's newsletter, which in April 2004 stated: "Who would have ever thought we would see the day when promoting sexual abstinence among students would become an opportunity to communicate the Good News of the Gospel."
"SRT does not offer an SRT abstinence pledge without religious content," the suit says, quoting Silver Ring's pledge: "In signing this covenant before God Almighty, I ... agree to wear a silver ring as a sign of my pledge to abstain from sexual behavior that is inconsistent with Biblical standards." The suit also quotes from the SRT Study Bible, given to all who attend Silver Ring programs and pay $15 for a ring. "Jesus Christ [is] the Only Way to God. . . . If you have accepted God's wonderful gift of salvation through his Son, Jesus Christ, your name will be found in the Book of Life, and you will spend eternity in heaven with God. If you have chosen to reject Christ, then your final destination will be the lake of fire. No arguments. Case closed."
Both the Boston and Pittsburgh ACLU chapters have been sending "testers," Walczak says, to observe the Silver Ring program in action. Although the short secular segment of the group's three-hour program was religion-free, he reports, it involved few attendees compared to the religious program. Walczak believes heavy promotion of the religious portion of the program made leaving the room for the secular segment a less-than-free-choice for kids subject to peer pressure.
"Bottom line is, it's a case we could win anywhere," Walczak concludes. As for the sudden change to Silver Ring's Web site: "Silver Ring has every right to portray themselves in any way they want," he says, "but ... there may be a need for us to take action to preserve evidence."