Standing at the entrance to Louisiana’s state capitol building on a sunny morning in April, Dee Burbank paraphrased Jesus. “It’s been said that if we know the truth, the truth will set us free,” Burbank declared, pausing for effect as more than 1,000 teenagers gathered on the stone steps below her fell into a round of whooping. “But I add to that, if you follow a lie, the lie of the sexual revolution–if you follow a lie, you may die.”
A small woman with glasses perched professorially on her nose, Burbank railed against sex outside of marriage in a cadence that brought skilled politicians and pastors to mind. “It’s a privilege to be here with our greatest treasure, our young people–and our legislative officials, our other governmental officials, to celebrate the truth that will set us free!” she boomed. As Burbank reached a crescendo–shouting that “Ignorance, stupidity can only reign so long because the truth will emerge like the phoenix and rise and light the skies!”–one blond, ponytailed girl in the audience leaned over and marveled to her friend, “Wow, she could be a preacher!”
Dee Burbank is neither politician nor preacher. She is a doctor on the payroll of Louisiana’s Governor’s Program on Abstinence, or GPA–and one of many people whose zeal for eradicating sexual activity among young people has helped elevate a certain “truth,” as she and many other advocates call their complete censure of all extramarital sex, into an official statewide message trumpeted by politicians, teachers and budding teen political advocates. The fact that Burbank and others were holding a rally to promote abstinence, which she calls “the age-old practice of self-government,” at the seat of actual government speaks to the murky political territory that abstinence-only education has come to occupy.
Using money that flows from Washington through the governor’s office, GPA leaders presented an award to Governor Kathleen Blanco, a Democrat who inherited the program from her Republican predecessor. Then the hordes of teens in matching blue GPA T-shirts lunched on chicken and biscuits at the governor’s mansion. As Curtis Lipscomb, a 17-year-old who served as membership director of his high school’s GPA club in Ouachita, Louisiana, pointed out, “There’s not many clubs that the government backs and supports with all its power.”
That’s high school clubs Lipscomb is talking about, and he’s right. In fact, while federally funded programs for children, from school lunches to childcare, are being slashed, abstinence-only education is expanding. In 1996, when Congress approved the Social Security Act, one of several sources of federal funding for abstinence education, Washington put just $4 million toward such programs. Since then, more than $700 million has been lavished on programs that discourage sex; and President Bush has requested a total of $206 million for the next fiscal year.
Louisiana’s program has come under fire for its religious content. In 2002, in response to a suit brought by the ACLU, a Louisiana district court found that the program violated the separation of church and state. This past June the same court ruled that the program had sufficiently changed itself so that even though its materials still contained religious references, its main purpose wasn’t to advance religion. Even now religion clearly underlies the program’s teachings, and it continues to function as a vehicle for funneling government cash to key figures on Louisiana’s Christian right. But to discourage teens from having sex, the program has shifted its emphasis away from God’s punishment and more squarely onto the dangers of STDs. Meanwhile, barred from religious proselytizing, the program devotes much of its energy to a somewhat less predictable but equally unsettling purpose: political recruitment and advocacy.
Though by law it is supposed to focus only on promoting abstinence outside marriage, Louisiana’s program also connects young people to the broader conservative politics surrounding the abstinence-only movement. The strategy helps turn out the next generation of foot soldiers who can, in turn, provide the grassroots political support necessary to perpetuate such programs in the long term. “The right has done an extremely effective and aggressive job of trying to orient and train young people on their political goals, philosophy and techniques,” says Elliot Mincberg, vice president and legal director of People for the American Way. Rather than teach about religious beliefs, which many of the people drawn to Louisiana’s abstinence program already have, the governor’s program links those ideas to political action. Says Mincberg, “They’re suggesting you can’t be a good Christian unless you support this particular political point of view.”
For the past few years the governor’s program has used the $1.6 million in federal funds it receives yearly to teach abstinence to middle schoolers, run a website and create “GPA Clubs,” which are now in 285 high schools and fourteen colleges throughout Louisiana. For many, the voluntary clubs’ primary function is social. “It gives you friends at your school… [who] will support you in your stand to say no,” Lipscomb says of his GPA club. Sometimes members wear their GPA T-shirts so they can be identified, he says. “And you can go hang with them if you don’t feel comfortable around another group that might be talking about sex or participating in it.”
Rustin Loyd, 19, describes the GPA club he runs at Southeastern Louisiana University as equally supportive, though more casual. “We’re all really close friends,” Loyd says of his fellow club members. “We see each other a lot. It’s not just, ‘My name’s Rustin, I haven’t had sex in three weeks.'”
In addition to social support, GPA clubs “serve as training ground for young abstinence advocates,” according to the program’s own materials. The governor’s program holds a yearly legislative caucus that, like the April event, is held at the capitol. At it, teens sit in legislators’ seats and mull over mock legislation, learning, according to GPA materials, “how to debate and pass legislation and how to maneuver through parliamentary procedures.”
Or, as Curtis Lipscomb, who attended this year’s caucus, puts it: “We debated over pretend bills about sex.” Many proposals deal directly with the issue of teaching abstinence, though the conference–held this year on the anniversary of the Roe v. Wade decision–also hones teens’ debating skills on other favorite culture-war topics, including abortion. Because GPA members tend to be on the same side in the bitter battles over these questions, the program brought in an adult to argue the pro-choice, pro-sex education side this year, according to GPA director Gail Dignam. Who won the debates?
“The kids did, of course,” says Dignam.
When Odessey Terzi attended the legislative meeting two years ago, she made the case for a mock law that would require condom packages to warn that they’re not effective against all STDs. Terzi, a college student who also went to the meeting in April, says she is majoring in political science and planning on attending law school so she can become a politician and push for legislation that, like the GPA, furthers traditional values. If she does reach higher office, says Terzi, “I would definitely work to continue to promote funding for a program like this.”
The governor’s program schools students in political etiquette so they can get to that point. Materials advise students who attend the legislative conference to send a follow-up letter thanking Louisiana’s Speaker of the House for the event and issue a press release touting its success to local newspapers. And the program chose a select few students to go to a weeklong leadership institute in Washington, where they met with members of Congress who support abstinence-only education.
The program materials posted on the web also include a study guide that quizzes teens about the number and terms of state and federal legislators as well as about people in positions of power at the Department of Health and Human Services and the Centers for Disease Control. And the “News You Can Use” section of the GPA website, www.abstinencedu.com, is filled with minutely detailed, if biased, policy stories related to abstinence. A March 8 story about an amendment to the welfare reform law that would affect abstinence funding refers to opponents of abstinence-only education as “condom pushers,” for instance. And another derides a negative evaluation of an abstinence program as “shakier than school-lunch jello.”
GPA clubs are encouraged to select a public relations director, a student who is supposed to raise awareness about abstinence. The program issues pre-fab forms for PR directors to give to local mayors as well as to town and city councils so they can proclaim an official awareness day for STDs “and advocate abstinence as the solution.” All club members are encouraged to hone their debating skills, though. One exercise called “talk radio” has students practice giving pithy one-minute summaries on hot-button issues such as whether the United Nations should continue to distribute condoms in Third World countries and whether government should promote both abstinence and condoms.
At least one person, a former state legislator named Kay Iles, is a paid contractor for the GPA whose sole responsibility is to act as a liaison between the program and a legislator. GPA staff have also worked to export their program to other countries. There are now forty clubs in Trinidad and Tobago modeled after the GPA clubs, and Louisiana’s abstinence-only middle school curriculum is also being taught there. GPA representatives recently went to Poland to discuss the possible implementation of the program in that country.
The legality of using abstinence-only dollars for such purposes is dubious. The provision of the Social Security Act that provides the GPA’s funding clearly spells out that the money can be used only for teaching about the benefits of abstaining from sex–a point abstinence proponents have often made in their efforts to make sure contractors don’t let slip any positive information about birth control (a subject that is supposed to be mentioned only in terms of its risks). But the promotion of the program itself seems to fall outside the scope of the law.
More generally, the Office of Management and Budget forbids the use of federal funding for grassroots appeals that have a “reasonably foreseeable consequence” of leading to concerted action. Yet the political aspects of the governor’s program and other abstinence-only projects have thus far gone unchallenged. Kay Guinane, counsel for the Nonprofit Advocacy Project at OMB Watch, says the GPA’s activities may very well violate the anti-lobbying law and certainly highlight a double-standard in government oversight. “If [the GPA] were a group that didn’t support abstinence-only and had the exact same activities, they would find themselves audited in a heartbeat,” says Guinane, who points to several groups that differ from the Administration’s position on abstinence education. The nonprofit Advocates for Youth, a group that supports giving teens information about contraception, for instance, has been audited three times by different federal offices. (None of the audits turned up any improprieties, though the group has not yet received the final report on the third investigation.)
Despite the 2002 lawsuit, which required the GPA to stop promoting religion, the program still has strong ties to Christian organizations and posts links to explicitly religious articles on its website. Religious groups have embraced the governor’s program–and, by extension, the governor. And the GPA has drawn on them for volunteers, paid speakers and other kinds of support. As Roderick Hawkins, a spokesman for Governor Blanco, explains it, “In our state culture, sometimes you have to knock on some religious doors to spread the message.”
In the early days of the governor’s program, many of these groups were paid directly to spread the abstinence message, and they happily touted their religious achievements. “December was an excellen[t] month for our program, we were able to focus on the virgin birth and make it apparent that God desire[s] sexual purity as a way of life,” read a 1999 monthly report of a Christian organization known as the Rapides Station Community Ministries. In August 2001 the group proudly announced it had used the money to pay for a back-to-school youth revival, in which a minister “proclaim[ed] God’s word with power as to why we should live pure and holy.”
In 2002, after the ACLU sued then-Governor Mike Foster and Dan Richey, director of the program at the time, US District Court Judge Thomas Porteous Jr. agreed that the state was using federal abstinence-only money to promote religion. The parties settled the suit with the agreement that the program would stop advancing religion. Since then the GPA has begun paying individual volunteers to teach the program’s standardized abstinence curriculum rather than giving grants to organizations, which can fall into the legal category of “pervasively sectarian”–or primarily religious in purpose.
The change took care of at least one of the program’s legal problems; individuals cannot be considered pervasively sectarian. Yet many of the same people are still involved, only paid differently. The program no longer funds the “Just Say Whoa!” theater group, for example, which before 2002 spent some of its money putting on a play featuring a character called “bible guy” who advises the teen audience that “As Christians, our bodies belong to the Lord, not to us. God wants more for you than a one-night stand.” But the GPA continues to fund the program’s creator, Patricia Reeves. And though it stopped giving grants to the Louisiana Family Forum, the local affiliate of the national religious group Focus on the Family, the program now directly employs a former board member of the forum, Nancy Victory, project director of the GPA website.
Even though the GPA’s official language has been somewhat secularized, a list of individual grant recipients obtained through the Freedom of Information Act still reads like a who’s who of the religious right. Last year the Rev. Billy McCormack, known for his political support of former Klansman David Duke in the 1980s, received a grant. Grantees funded through June of this year include John Hogue, founder of the Louisiana Christian Coalition, and the Rev. Bill Shanks, who leads the local chapter of the antiabortion group Operation Rescue. At least eight grantees receiving funds through June are affiliated with crisis pregnancy centers that counsel against abortion, a figure that’s in keeping with the national average: According to SIECUS, the Sexuality Information and Education Council of the United States, more than one-quarter of organizations receiving federal abstinence-only money are explicitly antichoice.
While the program for the April conference makes no mention of their religious affiliations, most presenters and speakers there also work for religious institutions, including the keynote presenter, Jacob Aranza, a founding pastor at Our Savior’s Church; Clifton LeJeune, pastor of the Jesus Worship Center; Christian rockers Kelly Pease and Joshua Blakesley; and Sidney Hidalgo, children’s pastor at a place called the Harvest, a Christian ministry whose mission includes “evangeliz[ing] the unchurched while adoring God.”
Even Burbank, officially the GPA’s medical consultant, clearly has faith-based reasons for her positions. She made a secular argument at the abstinence rally, warning teens about sexually transmitted diseases and heartbreak. And when asked afterward why she was so passionate about abstinence, Burbank said she was moved to her work “as a pediatrician and a parent of young adults.” But during a videotaped interview with Father M. Jeffery Bayhi, which is available over the Internet, she makes her religious reasons for opposing extramarital sex clear. “There’s no way around God’s best plan for us,” she tells Bayhi, who works for Closer Walk Ministries, a Catholic group devoted to “proclaiming the great mercy of God.” One-night stands and casual sex, she goes on to say, “are not the deep loving encounters that God had planned.”
In any case, the GPA website provides a more technical response to the question of what premarital sexual acts are “okay,” warning readers to avoid “just about anything accompanied by moaning,” as one article posted there puts it. Another lists various problems with condoms, concluding that “the condom’s biggest flaw is that those using it to prevent the conception of another human being are offending God.”
The skeptic could be forgiven for wondering how much of this actually deters teens from having sex. The GPA’s Dignam says an evaluation of the entire program is now being designed. In the meantime, Dignam has explained that the GPA’s curriculum for middle school students was “scientifically designed in 1983” and that an evaluation of the curriculum “consistently showed a 40% movement from sexual activity to non-sexual activity among the teen program participants during a 3.5-year period.” The governor’s office was unable to provide the study containing this figure, saying only that it came from an unpublished report funded by the Office of Population Affairs. And Douglas Kirby, a senior research scientist at ETR Associates who specializes in the evaluation of teen pregnancy prevention plans, says that no study that meets “reasonable research criteria” has yet shown that any abstinence-only program reduces sexual activity at all–let alone by 40 percent.
Meanwhile, if students are truly persuaded by the curriculum, which contains lessons on controlling natural desires and proposes visits to nursing homes, games of putt-putt golf and cleaning the garage as alternatives to sex, Louisiana will have a hard time proving it with a new evaluation. State law forbids surveying students about their personal beliefs or practices relating to sex–a provision that makes it impossible for researchers to evaluate the impact of the GPA on sexual activity.
Abstinence programs nationwide likewise haven’t proved their effectiveness. Several have resisted evaluation, objecting to having their participants asked sexually explicit questions. The most extensive study yet, commissioned by the Department of Health and Human Services and released in June, doesn’t address when teens initiate sex or their rates of sexually transmitted diseases. Rather, it looks at how four programs that were picked specifically because they were well implemented and consented to the evaluation (at least one federally funded program refused) affect knowledge and intentions around sex.
The difficulty of showing the impact of abstinence-only education programs stems in large part from the difficulty of persuading students to refrain from having sex. (Indeed, the effort to change their political views may be easier, as well as more expedient.) And abstinence-only programs may leave participants more likely to engage in risky sex. A 2005 study by Peter Bearman and Hanna Bruckner published in the Journal of Adolescent Health found that while teens who promised to stay virgins delayed sex by an average of eighteen months and had fewer sexual partners, they were less likely to use contraception when they eventually did have sex. Virginity pledgers had almost the same rates of sexually transmitted diseases as the rest of teens–6.4 percent versus 6.9 percent.
No one on the capitol steps in Baton Rouge on that April morning seems to be judging the virginity pledge as an exercise in futility, though. Indeed, the crowd of teens so revved up by Dee Burbank’s speech grows solemn as a robed judge appears and asks them to raise their right hands. “Do you swear or affirm to speak the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, so help me God?” Judge Glenn Gremillion asks the crowd before telling them to repeat after him: “I promise to abstain from all sexual activity from this day until I’m married.”
Looking around, it’s hard to imagine how this vow will affect the teens echoing Judge Gremillion’s words. Using Bearman and Bruckner’s research as a predictor, 88 percent of them will go on to have premarital sex. Some, undoubtedly, already have. Rachel Kappelman, a graduating senior at the Logansport High School GPA club, thinks the group may be most useful for these students. “This is not the virgin club,” says Kappelman. “You get to see people who have made mistakes and have felt bad about it and join abstinence.”
Kappelman, who was president of her GPA club during the last school year, admits that at first she “just signed up for it to get out of class.” But, perhaps because she has two sisters who gave birth out of wedlock, she has developed a passion for the program and has even taken it upon herself to counsel girls who get pregnant or feel pressured to have sex. “If it’s a Friday night and you’re out with your boyfriend and you want to call one of us, we’ll come get you in a heartbeat,” she says.
As she sees it, her experience with the GPA has taught her to take a stand against a wide range of problems, including “unwed mothers, abortion, STDs, pressure from guys and pressure from girls.” What’s more, Kappelman feels she’s learned the best way to address these complicated moral and personal issues. “Whenever it comes down to it, everything our club does has everything in the world to do with government,” says the 17-year-old as she stands in front of the capitol building. “Coming here and seeing how it works and seeing that we have a chance to argue and debate things lets us know that hey, if we want to take a stand against something that’s not going the way we want to or if at any time our rights are being pushed, all we have to do is push back to get our voice out.”