The American Civil Liberties Union has filed suit against the US Agency for International Development (USAID) to compel the release of documents relating to its overseas abstinence-only programs, which are funded through HIV/AIDS grants.

An Inspector General's report (pdf) issued last July indicated that USAID had a history of incorporating religious materials into such programs and had not received legal guidance from the Justice Department on whether this was constitutionally permissible. Faith-based organizations have been allowed to compete for federal contracts since 2001 under an initiative begun by former President George W. Bush, but the guidelines have never been clarified.

Following the publication of the report, the ACLU filed two freedom of information requests to obtain documents pertaining to the presence of religious materials in the abstinence-only programs. Since USAID has not responded to these requests in a timely manner, the lawsuit seeks a court order to compel the release of contracts and communications that might shed light on the question.

The Inspector General's report had concluded that "some USAID-awarded funds were ... used for the rehabilitation of mosques and adjoining community centers in Iraq. USAID also funded, within a program to combat HIV/AIDS, lesson plans that contained Biblical applications and discussions."

The report pointed in particular to the "self-awareness and self-worth" component of the Abstinence and Behavior Change for Youth Program. "Like the curriculums’ other sessions, the self-awareness and self-worth session contains an optional Biblical application and discussion. It draws on a Bible story about Jesus and Zacchaeus to convey the point that 'knowing we are loved and having a good attitude about ourselves help us do good things.' The session also includes a psalm to be used as a "'memory verse' for reflection purposes."

It appears, however, that the ACLU may be less concerned about the possible religious component of these programs than about what it sees as the ineffectiveness of abstinence-only programs in general.

The lawsuit (pdf) states that "plaintiff seeks documents through the FOIA to understand whether Defendant is properly monitoring grantees to ensure that federal funds are not spent on religious activities." It then goes on to note that "abstinence-only-until-marriage instruction fails to provide youth with the tools they need to make healthy decisions. Indeed, providing information about and access to condoms is crucial in preventing the spread of HIV/AIDS, and withholding this information can cause serious harm to young people."

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