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Accord Reached in Church-State Dispute in Sex Education

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WASHINGTON--The Department of Health and Human Services and a group composed of taxpayers, clerics, and the American Jewish Congress have reached an out-of-court settlement in a case challenging the constitutionality of the Adolescent Family Life Act of 1981.

The law, dubbed the "chastity act,'' provides about $8 million in grants to public and private schools, churches, and other agencies for programs to prevent teenage pregnancy. Grantees are not allowed to provide family-planning services or to promote abortion.

Under the settlement, which was presented to a federal district judge here on Jan. 19 and will last for five years, the department promised to insure that counseling, education, and other services provided under the act are medically accurate and do not teach or promote religious doctrines.

The settlement also bars grant recipients from offering educational programs in church-affiliated schools during school hours and, in most circumstances, from using churches or other rooms intended for worship. If such rooms are used, religious symbols in them must be removed or covered to the extent practical.

The department also agreed to give the plaintiffs some influence over the selection of grant-application reviewers, and to let the plaintiffs inspect grant files and curricula approved by department officials.

The pact lets the department decide how to monitor grantees' compliance with the new restrictions on the use of funds while allowing the plaintiffs to seek court orders if they feel the agency is neglecting its duties.

'Important Victory'

The settlement was approved by coincidence during the same week that President Clinton issued a series of executive orders reversing policies by the Reagan and Bush administrations on abortion and contraception.

The Justice Department, which handled the case for the Department of Health and Human Services, declined to comment on the settlement. Officials there explained that H.H.S. also was unable to comment because Bush Administration lawyers who negotiated the agreement have left government service.

In a statement released last week, Janet Benshoof, the president of the Center for Reproductive Law andPolicy, which represented the plaintiffs in the case, described the settlement as "a very important victory, particulary for teenagers who are in desperate need of accurate information and reliable care regarding sexuality and pregnancy.''

The U.S. Catholic Conference, which filed friend-of-the-court briefs in the case on behalf of the government, said it was satisfied with the settlement.

"The settlement could be interpreted as excessively picky, but it reflects the reality that the program is being administered in a constitutional manner,'' said Mark Chopko, a lawyer for the group. "The government is promoting chastity, which is a value shared by people of many religions and people who do not practice religion at all.''

Kevin J. Hasson, a lawyer representing A Women's Choice, a grantee that intervened in the case on the side of the government, said his client decided to accept the settlement because 'we're sure [Secretary] Donna Shalala's H.H.S. will attempt to impose even stricter conditions anyway.''

Another incentive, he said, is the fact that the settlement is limited to five years.

'Reasonably Secular Goal'

According to a 1991 fact sheet from the Department of Health and Human Services, the agency funded 57 programs in 30 states in 1989; 27 grantees reported that they have religious affiliations.

In a 1988 decision, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in the case, Kendrick v. Sullivan, that the law did not on its face violate the First Amendment's ban on state establishment of religion, holding that it is a "reasonably secular goal'' to teach teenagers the value of chastity.

The Justices, however, sent the case back to a federal district court and instructed it to decide whether the law was unconstitutional as applied. (See Education Week, April 6, 1988).

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