Whenever people ask me for a concrete example of how the Religious Right has affected public policy, I point to the spread of "abstinence-only" sex education. Thanks to pressure from Protestant fundamentalist and traditionalist Roman Catholic groups, federal tax money funds only these programs.
This is the case even though polls show most Americans support comprehensive sex education for young people – programs that stress the value of abstinence but also talk frankly and accurately about ways to prevent unwanted pregnancy and the spread of sexually transmitted diseases.
So how are the "abstinence-only" programs working out? A new report by our friends at the Texas Freedom Network (TFN) illustrates how ineffective they can be. TFN found that sex education in Texas' public schools is rife with inaccuracies, often based on programs that stress fear and shame and, most alarmingly, sometimes includes religious material.
The TFN report finds that nearly 10 percent of Texas' secondary school districts have incorporated religious material into their sex ed classes. One school district distributed a handout titled "Things to look for in a mate." The first item listed was, "Is Jesus their first love?" Another district asked teens to explain what the Bible says about premarital sex.
The report also found that inaccurate information about condoms was found in 40 percent of the school districts. Most commonly, condom failure rates are exaggerated, or discredited claims are made that the AIDS virus can pass through latex condoms. (Not true, says the Centers for Disease Control.)
In my travels shadowing the Religious Right over the years, I've noticed this unrelenting hostility toward condoms. The thinking of the Religious Right seems to be that if young people find out condoms exist, they will start having sex.
I've got news for the Religious Right: Young people know about condoms, and they are having sex. The problem is, your groups have scared many away from using them. (Even Bristol Palin knows why this is irresponsible!)
Here's another news flash for the Religious Right: The vast majority of Americans have sex before marriage. A 2006 study by the Guttmacher Institute found that 95 percent of Americans engage in pre-marital sex. As Guttmacher put it, the practice is "nearly universal among Americans and has been for decades." The "abstinence-until-marriage" message is completely disconnected from reality,
Texas spent $18 million spreading the "abstinence-only" message in 2007. It's not working. The state has one of the highest teen birth rates in the nation and, according to TFN, spends $1 billion annually on the costs associated with teen pregnancy.
I wish Texas – and indeed the entire nation – had a sex education policy that was based in the real world. Alas, it appears that won't be arriving any time soon. The federal 2009 Omnibus Appropriations bill is out. It allocates $94 million for more "abstinence-only" programs.