Pregnancy-Prevention Program Is Struck Down
WASHINGTON--A section of a federal law that provides funds to religious and other groups that advise teen-agers not to engage in premarital sex or to have abortions violates the First Amendment's ban on government establishment of religion, a federal district judge ruled last week.
Although the Adolescent Family Life Act has a "valid secular purpose,'' U.S. District Judge Charles R. Richey said, it also has the "primary effect of advancing religion and fosters an excessive entanglement between government and religion.''
The 1981 law is designed, in part, to prevent teen-age pregnancy by discouraging sexual activity. The law requires grant recipients to describe how they will involve religious or charitable organizations in that effort, and limits funding to programs or projects that do not provide abortions, or abortion counseling or referral.
Since the law was passed, roughly $30 million has been awarded annually in grants for research, pregnancy-prevention programs, and care programs for pregnant adolescents, according to the American Civil Liberties Union. The A.C.L.U. challenged the law on behalf of four taxpayers, three Protestant ministers, and the American Jewish Congress.
Judge Richey noted in his April 15 ruling that at least 10 religious organizations that have "policies prohibiting any deviation from religious doctrine'' have received funding through the act, which is administered by the Department of Health and Human Services.
The law, the judge said, "explicitly permits'' grants for such organizations to provide education and counseling about "the harm of premarital sexual relations and the factors supporting a choice of adoption rather than abortion.''
"These matters,'' he said, "are fundamental elements of religious doctrine.''
"Because these religious organizations use federal funds to educate or counsel on matters inseparable from religious dogma, the constitutional implications of the grants are clear and clearly troubling,'' the judge continued.
"The inescapable conclusion is that federal funds have been used by pervasively sectarian institutions to teach matters inherently tied to religion.''
Judge Richey declared the law unconstitutional, but "only insofar as religious organizations are involved in carrying out'' its programs and purposes.
He issued an injunction prohibiting any further funding of such organizations under the law. In addition, he ordered lawyers for both parties to submit briefs addressing whether the law can be preserved by cutting out the unconstitutional provisions.
"It is a victory with significant timing,'' said Janet Benshoof, director of the A.C.L.U.'s reproductive freedom project. "Decided on April 15, federal income-tax day, the case protects federal taxpayer from having their tax dollars spent in clear violation of the constitution.''
A spokesman for the Justice Department said late last week that government lawyers were still studying the ruling and had no comment on it or a possible appeal.