At the beginning of the 2017-18 academic year, Florida’s Santa Rosa County school district signed a contract with an outside organization whom it had hired to run the district’s sex education for the next half decade.
This would not have been notable save for one salient fact. The group, the Pregnancy Resource Center, is a religious organization and the school district is a public one.
Of course, Santa Rosa County is no anomaly. Scores of public school students across the country are currently receiving sex “education” from a range of Christian-affiliated abstinence-only programs with names like the Chastity Project, the Silver Ring Thing, Sex Respect, and True Love Waits.
But these are not the only groups offering abstinence-only education. Some programs are run by the educational arms of fake clinics, commonly called “crisis pregnancy centers.” These often operate under different names than their parent organization, which can make the connection to an anti-choice, religiously affiliated pregnancy center far less transparent.
Beyond the fact that such a marriage between religious organizations and public schools is a murky issue when it comes to the law, not every parent agrees with these debunked and ineffective education programs. In a number of places, recently in St. Louis, Missouri, we have seen parents demand a clear separation of church and state.
These calls are important to consider, not only when looking at these specific groups, but also when looking at abstinence education as a whole. This is because, at its core, the abstinence-only movement is really a message of conservative Christian values.
Many groups claim that while they might be religiously affiliated, their programs for public schools are not. A pregnancy center in Ohio, which offers a program called Sexual Health and Purity Education, explains on its website, “Abstinence presentations made to public schools do not contain any references to religion. Abstinence presentations to church youth groups and Christian clubs do discuss God’s plan for sexuality and marriage.”
However, the entire concept of “purity” is based on an evangelical Christian ideology, a religious faith claimed by a quarter of the U.S. population, but by no means the voice of all Americans. Further, the American Civil Liberties Union explains that while under the federal Constitution and state law, schools may teach sexual abstinence, it “may not be taught as religious tenets.”
Programs may try to get around the religious messages in abstinence-only education by simply substituting more secular language for religious terms. Still, the fact remains, what taints the message is not only the absence of medically accurate information, but also that it comes from a place of religious ideology—something many parents have not signed up for.
What’s So Christian About Abstinence-Only Education?
One of the most fundamental messages of abstinence education is that sex should only occur in a heterosexual marriage, ideally with the goal of reproduction. This view is often promoted as a universal secular value. In reality, this is actually far from the case. For example, it wouldn’t be an appropriate message for educators to deliver to my own kids, the older two whom I had without being married, and all three of whom are Jewish. And it sure wouldn’t be the right message for a whole range of school children.
Really, this is a message that is directly linked to the religious view that sex outside of marriage is considered a sin. This belief then colors much of the abstinence-only language, even if the word “sin” is replaced with a synonym like “dirty,” and those who abstain are referred to as “pure.” Even if specific language referencing “God” or “Jesus” is removed, when those who have babies without being married are doing so out of wedlock, when sex should be saved (saved!) for marriage, and when the groups providing these programs also use anti-choice rhetoric—the language preferred by activists who oppose abortion and not medically accurate language—to promote things like, “A free comprehensive 11-week Bible Study for post-abortive women who are experiencing regret, guilt, shame, depression, and other issues associated with that decision,” it is hard to imagine that they are really divorcing their religious views from their teaching.
The fact is, in a diverse country where we have both rising rates of single adults, and significant numbers of unmarried parents, and where plenty of kids live in “non-traditional” households, the abstinence-only message is inappropriate in addition to being dangerous and ineffective.
Abstinence-Only Meets Crisis Pregnancy Centers
At their core, crisis pregnancy centers—which offer little in the way of services for pregnant or parenting women beyond the same pregnancy tests sold in any drug store and the occasional ultrasound (as a means to deter abortions)—are mainly a vehicle to spread anti-choice messaging.
After 1996, when former President Bill Clinton’s welfare reforms created a new funding stream for abstinence-only education, this mandate became even easier, since these funds pumped millions of dollars a year into grants for organizations teaching a very specific type of abstinence-only program.
Around this time, crisis pregnancy centers realized that offering abstinence-only education could allow them to tap into these funds and broaden their reach.
This was important since sticking to their purported mission, to offer support to pregnant women, meant a fairly limited scope of influence, considering that the primary clientele of these centers were only people who thought they were pregnant.
As a congressional report on pregnancy resource centers documented, by 2006, when the report was released, federal abstinence grants had already become significant source of funding for these centers. The report further showed that the centers were explicit about their aims. It detailed, how during a 2005 conference, the national crisis pregnancy center umbrella organization, Care Net, explained that:
[D]efending and promoting a culture of life is not just about saving babies of those women that walk into the center that are pregnant and thinking about abortion …. Now obviously when you go into public schools you can’t start talking about Jesus dying on the cross, or you may not get invited back very quickly. But … you’re opening the door to a lot more people that may not normally know of your center, you’re building credibility for your pregnancy center, you’re helping people begin to trust in your pregnancy center, so that if those girls that may have heard your story and didn’t quite take it to heart and end up coming to your pregnancy center, or they have friends or family members that come, that trust is already built, and then you’ve already earned the right to be heard. So people that come into your center that have already heard you, you get the chance to share the Gospel with them, which is the ultimate thing of what we’re doing.
A few years later, in 2011, a different type of report on crisis pregnancy centers, this one from the Family Research Council, (a lobby group, whose mission is “to advance faith, family, and freedom in public policy and the culture from a Christian worldview”) also addressed this issue directly. It stated that, “Abstinence education … has been offered increasingly through pregnancy centers to audiences in a host of settings over the past 15 years, including public and private school health classes … Abstinence education is a vehicle for [pregnancy resource centers (PRCs)] to deliver accurate and medically referenced health messages to an estimated 1.43 million teenagers and adults each year; 52 percent of PRCs offer such classes.”
The intervening years haven’t seen the mission of these centers change, but crisis pregnancy centers now outnumber, for example, abortion clinics and number in the thousands. And in today’s political climate, they have the chance to grow their abstinence-only programs even more. That’s because in today’s political climate, they stand to have access to far more funding for abstinence education than they did during the Obama years. According to Debra Hauser, the president of the organization Advocates for Youth, this is the result of proposed changes to federal abstinence education funding. These changes were reflected in a spending deal Congress passed in February and which President Trump signed into law late last week. Hauser sees one of the results being that if states turn down this funding, groups that offer community-based abstinence education can now apply for any residual funds.
As she explained in a phone interview, “Money used to go back into the government coffers. But now any organization that provides abstinence education can apply for the [extra] money. So instead of going unused, it will go to these centers.” This will, of course, allow crisis pregnancy centers even more access to public school kids, utterly ignoring the fact that the overwhelming number of parents from a range of religious and political backgrounds do not want anything of the sort.
Parents Fight Back
Last year, Sally Hunt, a mother of three from St. Louis, Missouri, was appalled to learn that a Christian group, Thrive St.Louis, which ran the local crisis pregnancy center, was behind an abstinence-only curriculum called Best Choice that was being taught in her local public school.
Hunt is a supporter of LGBTQ-inclusive comprehensive sex education and deeply believes in keeping religion out of the public schools. So when she determined that abstinence-only sex education was being taught by this religiously affiliated organization, she knew she had to act. She explained in a phone interview, “When I found out that this group was in our public school districts I was very upset. I knew who they were because they also ran the crisis pregnancy center in town.”
Realizing that her first step was to see the curriculum, Hunt asked her district’s administrators to view it. What she learned was that all the school had received from Thrive St. Louis was a program outline.
So Hunt began recruiting like-minded parents and started a Facebook group to raise awareness and to try to find out what was being taught.
She recounts that a school employee obtained the curriculum and shared it with the parent group, who was troubled by what they saw. For example, the curriculum not only promoted the idea that sex outside of marriage was shameful and dirty, but it also included a laundry list of inaccurate messages about gender, passed off medically inaccurate information as fact, and didn’t cover sexual orientation at all.
Furthermore, Hunt also discovered that, “There were a few sources on the outline that were Christian fundamentalist-type books about saving sex for marriage.”
Armed with this knowledge, the parent group presented its findings to the district, and after a lot of door knocking, advocating, and a series of meetings, many of the local schools decided to drop the organization. But the path there wasn’t easy. As Hunt says, “We really had to demand that the districts get rid of Thrive.”
In recent months, Thrive’s Best Choice has said it has made changes to its curriculum and made it available to schools online. The group also refutes claims about medical inaccuracy or religious affiliation posting on its website, “The program is 100 percent medically accurate and all data has been taken from sources like the CDC …. Our Best Choice program for public middle and high schools is a completely ‘silo-ed’ program (Best Choice has our own offices, staff, our own website, Facebook page, etc., separated from our faith-based entities). There are no references to religion or faith in our curriculum.”
However, the fact remains that separate Facebook page or no, the larger organization—Thrive St. Louis, the group that oversees the educational program—is a Christian one with a particular agenda around sex and sexuality. So simply claiming that the programs are siloed would be akin to believing that a newspaper’s editor had no say in its editorial page.
Where We Are Now
Conservative Christian doctrine has long colored the abstinence-only message and the marriage of crisis pregnancy centers and abstinence-only programs as just one tactic of a movement determined to impose its values in a secular public context. But this tactic, like much of work of the crisis pregnancy centers themselves, is largely effective because it is subtle.
Indeed, a lot of parents simply don’t know who is behind their children’s sex education. As Andrea Swartzendruber, a professor at the University of Georgia who conducted a study of Georgia’s crisis pregnancy centers, said in an email, “I have met and heard from many upset parents who reported being unaware that their children’s sex education class at school was taught by the local crisis pregnancy center.”
That awareness is a first step. A second one might very well be taking a leaf from parents like those in St. Louis and demanding to see curricula and holding schools accountable for the presenters they bring in.
But possibly the most important issue that needs to be addressed is the simple fact that despite the claims of religiously motivated abstinence-only educators that their public school programs are not religious, these claims are not supported by fact. You can’t just take references to “God” or “Jesus” out of a curriculum, replace them with an alternate phrase, then teach the same material and call it secular. Yet that is just what so many of these groups seem to be doing in public schools across the country—and it’s not OK.