ACLU Sues USAID: Are We Exporting US Taxpayer-Funded Religion?

The ACLU has waited long enough.

On Thursday, February 18th, they filed a lawsuit against USAID for refusing to comply with their Freedom of Information Act requests from July and September 2009, for documents related to USAID-funded abstinence-only-until-marriage programs abroad. The ACLU has patiently awaited documents that may help shed light on an audit completed last year suggesting USAID is dispersing money, unconstitutionally, for religiously-based HIV prevention programs.

The report, filed by the Office of Inspector General, surveyed 9 out of the 10 faith-based organizations using USAID funds and stated clearly that USAID-awarded funds were being used for religious activities.

For example, USAID monies fund abstinence-only-until-marriage programs for African youth that include “Biblical stories and religious messages.” What do these look like?

One curriculum, used for HIV/AIDS prevention education, includes an optional psalm for self-reflection: “How can a young man keep his way pure? By living according to your word.”

The take-away concept the curriculum sums up: “God has a plan for sex and this plan will help you and protect you from harm.”

While it is important to recognize cultural mores when crafting curricula, these messages do more harm than good. Rates of HIV and AIDS throughout Africa vary greatly but sub-Saharan Africa is more heavily affected by AIDS than anywhere else in the world. Religious messages that reinforce harmful cultural and social constructs are far from useful – if God has a plan for sex, how does this help young people protect themselves against HIV and AIDS – especially young women who more often than not are not, in developing nations, the final arbiters when it comes to protecting themselves against HIV or pregnancy.

The ACLU, in its complaint, calls these USAID funded programs “an unconstitutional expenditure of federal tax dollars” through PEPFAR (the program President Bush created to fight the global HIV/AIDS pandemic – President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief) and notes that, by definition, abstinence-only-until-marriage programs withhold life-saving information on contraception and condoms.

“In the face of a growing global HIV/AIDS crisis, USAID is not only violating basic constitutional principles by promoting government-funded religious activities, it is unconscionably putting young people’s health and lives at risk,” said Rose Saxe, staff attorney with the ACLU AIDS Project.

USAID regulations related to the dispursement of funds for faith-based organizations are clear:

Organizations that receive direct financial assistance from USAID under any USAID program may not engage in inherently religious activities, such as worship, religious instruction, or proselytization, as part of the programs or services directly funded with direct financial assistance from USAID. If an organization conducts such activities, the activities must be offered separately, in time or location, from the programs or services funded with direct financial assistance from USAID, and participation must be voluntary for beneficiaries of the programs or services funded with such assistance.

The ACLU also notes, in its complaint against USAID, that the Office of Inspector General’s report found that the government agency “has a history of unconstitionally funding religious abstinence-only-until-marriage programs in developing countries.”

In African nations, in particular, using U.S. government funds to craft and disseminate HIV/AIDS prevention programs that include strong religious messages — and let’s be honest, we’re talking about strong fundamentalist Christian messages which reinforce strict gender roles on women and do not acknowledge the range of gender and sexual identities — seems particularly terrifying given the more recent reports of escalating violence and threats in the form of anti-gay bills, in Uganda, Rwanda and other African nations, that clearly arose from the intimate relationships between religious fundamentalists in the U.S. and these African nations.

HIV and AIDS prevention messages must impart life-saving information to young people. If the United States is, with one hand, attempting to address the continuing spread of HIV and AIDS in developing nations by providing government funds for prevention education and on the other hand disseminating powerful religious messages that only foster harmful gender and sexuality constructs that stand in the way of healthy behaviors and prevention, we’re constantly taking one step forward and two steps back.

U.S. taxpayers need to know how our money is being spent. The ACLU is doing its part to push for transparency:

“The United States government cannot be in the business of exporting religiously infused abstinence-only-until-marriage programs that we know fail to give young people the information they need to stay healthy,” said Brigitte Amiri, senior staff attorney with the ACLU Reproductive Freedom Project. “It is essential that the government provide all of the information it has about these programs so that the public has a full accounting of how taxpayer dollars are being spent.”

This article is republished from RH Reality Check [], a progressive online publication covering global reproductive and sexual health news and information.