Students Sue State Over Religious Messages|In ‘Abstinence Only’ Annual Teen Summit

     (CN) – Mississippi uses tax dollars to fund an “overtly religious event” through its annual abstinence-only-until-marriage summit for teen-agers, say three students who attended the events. In their federal complaint, all three teens say they “plan to attend the annual summit in the future” and are “offended by the religious content of the summit.”

     The three teen-agers, one of who sued anonymously through his parent, also anonymous, raise constitutional objections to “the annual abstinence-only-until marriage summit held at the Jackson Coliseum.” They say that spending tax money on the program is a government endorsement of Christianity.
     Named as defendants Mississippi Department of Human Services Executive Director Don Thompson, and Cheryl Sparkman, executive director of the Division of Economic Assistance division.
     Mississippi began holding the annual summit five years ago as part of National Teen Pregnancy Prevention Month, with sponsorship from the state’s “‘Just Wait’ Abstinence Unit,” a creature of the economic assistance division of the human services department.
     According to the complaint in Jackson Federal Court, the department uses federal abstinence-only funds to pay for speakers and other costs of the summit.
     Mississippi collected $1.4 million annually in fiscal years 2007 and 2008 from that fund.
     The federal government has spent more than $1.3 billion on abstinence programs since 1997, according to testimony at a 2008 meeting of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform. But statistics from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention show a rise in the teen pregnancy rate in 2006 – the first such increase in 15 years.
     The Obama administration has pledged to direct 75 percent of teen pregnancy prevention funding to programs that have been “demonstrated by rigorous research to prevent teen pregnancy.”
     The Senate is scheduled to vote this month on a $163.1 billion appropriations bill that provides zero funding for abstinence-only programs.
     According to the three students’ complaint, previous teen summits have begun with a pastor-led invocation, music from a Gospel choir and speeches laced with Christian themes.
     The plaintiffs say that a sitting Mississippi judge addressed the audience at the 2008 summit with a lengthy presentation about the 10 Commandments, saying that just as God teaches men to abstain from killing, stealing and lying, he also wants them to abstain from “promiscuous sex.”
     The students seek declaratory relief and an injunction to keep the defendants from including religious messages in state-funded events. They are represented by Kristy Bennett of the American Civil Liberties Union of Mississippi.

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