The leader of a federally funded faith-based abstinence organization said yesterday he is confident the group can address concerns about how it handles religious and secular issues.
“We don’t think there will be any problem,” said Denny Pattyn, leader of the Silver Ring Thing (SRT), which has won federal grants of about $1 million since 2003.
On Monday, the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) wrote Mr. Pattyn to say it was “suspending the drawdown of federal funds.”
“Organizations that receive direct financial assistance from the Department may not engage in inherently religious activities, such as worship, religious instruction or proselytization, as part of the programs or services” that receive such direct funding, Harry Wilson, associate commissioner of the HHS Family and Youth Services Bureau, said in the letter.
“Based on the information received to date,” he wrote, “we do not believe that the SRT’s actual use of federal funds for its program adequately complies with federal grant requirements.” He asked Mr. Pattyn for a corrective action plan by Sept. 6.
Mr. Pattyn said yesterday that the group has clearly delineated the faith-based sections of the program from the secular portions since it began receiving federal funds.
Students, he said, are “offered two options” — a faith-based session or a secular session. Students then are asked to “stand up and go to whichever room you want to go.”
Students choosing the faith-based version receive a special Bible and a silver ring bearing a scriptural reference, neither of which is funded by federal money.
Students who choose the nonreligious program receive a ring that says, “waiting,” or a “promise” ring from local jewelers.
Moreover, students in the faith-based version “make a promise to God that they’re going to wait,” while students in the secular program make their promise “to themselves, their friends and their family,” said Mr. Pattyn.
“If we’re not doing it perfectly or correctly, or it needs to be tweaked, then HHS will instruct us and we will tweak it,” he said.
In May, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) sued HHS in Boston, saying the federal grants to the Silver Ring Thing were being used illegally to fund religious activity.
“The program is infused with religion from start to finish,” said Daniel Mach, a law partner with Jenner & Block LLP in Washington. “To us, it seems this is a clear example of proselytizing on the government’s dime,” he said.
HHS is taking an important first step, but much more oversight is needed, given all the money spent on questionable abstinence programs, said Bill Smith of the Sexuality Information and Education Council of the United States.
Lawyer Joel Oster of the Alliance Defense Fund said, “No money has been spent inappropriately. Until this lawsuit came on their desk, no one complained.”