(WOMENSENEWS)–The Silver Ring Thing is a live three-hour, high-tech sound, light and video show complete with actors and comedy sketches with a stated mission to impress teens to promote teen chastity and so-called Christian values.
The mobile shows–set up in churches, conference centers and other venues around the country–culminate with teens pledging abstinence until they present a silver ring that symbolizes their celibacy to their spouse on their wedding day. They also sign a covenant agreeing to follow “biblical standards.” Teens who don’t want to participate in the religious testimonials that are part of the ceremony are allowed to leave the room.
The $15 silver rings that teens are encouraged to buy for the ceremony are inscribed with a biblical reference of 1 Thessalonians 4:3-4, which 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.”
Photographs of Silver Ring Thing events in newsletters and on its Web site depict a majority of female teens in the audiences.
The program is operated by the John Guest Evangelistic Team, based in Sewickley, a suburb of Pittsburgh, Pa. Guest, a crusading evangelical minister influenced by Rev. Billy Graham and who is now based at Christ Church at Grove Farm in Sewickley, is a frequent speaker to groups such as the Promise Keepers.
“The ministry of John Guest and his team is to call our world to Christ,” reads a passage of the group’s April 2004 newsletter. “The Silver Ring Thing is now the primary outreach.”
The same newsletter mentions Jesus Christ 17 times in 8 pages.
“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?” the newsletter asks.
The American Civil Liberties Union and others are apparently wondering the same thing.
On May 16, the American Civil Liberties Union issued the first direct challenge to the extensive Bush abstinence campaign when it sued the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services for mingling religious and governmental messages in the case of The Silver Ring Thing. The ACLU cited promotional materials like the Guest Team newsletter as some of its evidence in the suit.
The lawsuit was filed in federal district court in Massachusetts, one of the states where The Silver Ring Thing operates.
“People are surprised to learn that taxpayers are underwriting programs that ask students to accept Christ in the lives,” said Julie Sternberg, a senior staff attorney for the Reproductive Freedom Project of the ACLU in New York. “The Department of Health and Human Services only need to do 30 minutes of research to find out that the program has religious content. The funding of The Silver Ring Thing suggests whatever enforcement mechanisms the government has in place are highly inadequate.”
Fountains of Gold
Critics charge that abstinence-only education programs are turning into fountains of gold for religious and evangelical organizations as the Bush administration pours hundreds of millions of dollars into chastity programs for teens and singles.
In fiscal year 2005 alone, the federal government used three separate initiatives to grant $167 million to abstinence-only-until-marriage programs. In fiscal year 2004, the range of funds distributed to states ran from a state high of $12.3 million to programs in Texas to $6 million in Illinois, according to analysis released in March by the Sexuality Information and Education Council of the U.S., a policy organization in Washington, D.C. President Bush has asked for another $39 million for 2006.
In 1988, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in a 5-4 decision that government funding of abstinence education must be limited to institutions that are not “pervasively” religious and programs that eliminate religious indoctrination. At the time, the government spent $4 million on abstinence education for the entire country.
“At first, there was a stream of federal dollars,” said Sternberg. “The stream has become a raging river.”
The Silver Ring Thing has received over $1 million in federal abstinence-only funds in the past three years.
Denny Pattyn, founder and CEO of the Silver Ring Thing, told Women’s eNews that he is limiting his comments to selective media outlets. He sent an e-mail press release that affirms that the program received federal funds and is a faith-based abstinence program. “The Silver Ring Thing is aware of the proper designation of the Federal Funds received and asserts that these monies have been properly directed at all times.”
Officials at the Health and Human Services Department did not respond to phone and e-mail requests for comment.
Web Site Makeover
Immediately after the filing of the lawsuit, The Silver Ring Thing altered elements of its Web site, said the ACLU, which has before-and-after snapshots. The ACLU said the site added nonreligious follow-up steps to complement the religious suggestions. But it left “Deb’s Diary,” a Web site column on how girls can remain chaste, with commentaries on finding purity and blessing in God.
“Their makeover is ineffective in many ways,” said Sternberg.
The ACLU is also in federal court in Louisiana, where it argued that the state is in violation of a 2002 court settlement over its abstinence-only education programs by failing to root out all religious messaging. The governor’s office believes the state is in compliance with the settlement. A decision is pending.
Current federal mandates for funded abstinence-only programs require teaching that “a mutually faithful monogamous relationship in the context of marriage is the expected standard of human sexual activity,” and that “sexual activity outside of the context of marriage is likely to have harmful psychological and physical effects.” The programs do not teach safe sex practices, such as condom or contraceptive use. A study released by Rep. Henry Waxman (D-CA) last year found that 11 of the 13 most popular curriculums contain misleading information.
Abstinence-only education grant programs are promoted prominently on the White House Web site under “faith-based and community initiatives.” They are the result of a presidential executive order in January 2001 creating faith-based initiatives and another in December 2002 declaring that religious institutions can retain their religious autonomy and still participate in government-funded programs, sometimes described as “charitable choice.”
Implementing Executive Order
To implement the executive order, the Health and Human Services Department announced new regulations in July 2004, permitting organizations to obtain abstinence funds even if they are “pervasively” religious. In explaining the apparent contradiction with the Supreme Court 1988 ruling, the department asserted that a majority of the justices no longer accepted the underlying analysis of the decision.
“Where a religious organization receives direct government assistance, any inherently religious activities that the organization offers must simply be offered separately, in time or location,” the department explained in comments published along with the adoption of the new regulations.
The government rejected the idea of separate monitoring to prevent religious indoctrination.
“There is no accountability. As a practical matter, there is no monitoring,” said Rob Boston, a staff member of Americans United for Separation of Church and State, a watchdog organization in Washington, D.C.
A review of grantees by Women’s eNews indicate that several abstinence-only grants went to Christian-based “pregnancy centers,” such as Door of Hope Pregnancy Care Center in Madisonville, Ky., which states on its Web site that it is a ministry “administered without funding from any government agencies.”
Life Network in Colorado Springs, Colo., which presents its mission as “human life ministry that impacts and transforms people with the love of Christ” and is affiliated with the Christian conservative and vocally anti-choice Focus on the Family, also received funding.
The Sexuality Information and Education Council of the U.S. found that $26 million in federal abstinence funds in fiscal year 2004 went to anti-abortion groups.
Cynthia L. Cooper is an independent journalist in New York who writes frequently about reproductive rights and justice topics.
For more information:
States Boosting Funds for Abstinence-Only Sex Ed:
American Civil Liberties Union, Reproductive Freedom Project
“In Light of ACLU Lawsuit Charging the Federal Government with Funding Religious Activities, the Silver Ring Thing Removes Religious Content
The Silver Ring Thing: