Does a sexual-abstinence presentation in a public school by a Christian group breach the separation of church and state, even when the group doesn't proselytize? Some parents and educators are debating this issue following the recent performance at Middlebury Union Middle School (MUMS) of a skit sponsored by CareNet Pregnancy Center of Rutland. Entitled "Worth Waiting For," the pro-abstinence production is being staged at nine other middle schools in central and southern Vermont by a group of student volunteers from Rutland-area high schools.
"CareNet [national] is a Christian ministry assisting and promoting the evangelistic, pro-life work of pregnancy centers in North America," the organization's spokeswoman, Kristin Hansen, wrote in an email response to questions. Some of the 850 pregnancy centers affiliated with CareNet take a pro-active approach by educating young people about abstinence, Hansen added.
"It is a CareNet policy that any information that is presented in public schools must be absolutely secular and that presenters must not proselytize," Hansen wrote.
By all accounts, the group did adhere to that policy at an assembly for MUMS eighth-graders on April 6.
"This is public health peer education, and we never proselytize in any way," said Beth Marra, abstinence director for the CareNet Pregnancy Center in Rutland. "We would never be invited back to schools if we did not respect this necessary boundary."
CareNet has been sponsoring these skits in Vermont schools for the past 10 years -- the past four at MUMS. "To my knowledge, we have never had a parent complaint in the history of the drama troupe," Marra says. But at least one parent is complaining now.
"This program has no place in our middle school," Jordan Young wrote in an April 20 letter to the MUMS principal. As chair of the Cornwall school board, Young noted that he has seen "the issue of religious institutions in our schools is highly charged." MUMS would have been wise to choose one of many qualified secular groups to deliver an "abstinence-based" message to students, he said.
He further objected to the CareNet skit on the grounds that "abstinence-only-based programs are not beneficial to our students, and are, I would argue, harmful." Noting that the effectiveness of abstinence-only programs remains unproven, Young cited research showing that students making an "abstinence pledge" are 30 percent less likely to use condoms than are their nonpledging peers.
The MUMS skit did not entail an abstinence pledge. In addition, said school principal Inga Duktig, the CareNet presentation is only one element in a nine-week health-education course that presents abstinence as one choice among many available to students. Duktig added that nothing about the CareNet skit makes her view it as inappropriate for MUMS.
"Parents were not invited to the CareNet presentation, but they were informed of it in advance and could opt not to have their child attend," Duktig said. One student's parents did take that option.
Some students in attendance regarded the program as one-sided and misleading. Eighth-grader Eli Cohen said he and his friends thought the presenters "were trying to scare us." The skit suggested that "condoms almost always don't work and that having sex will give you STDs," Eli said. "They were giving only one side."
Rutland CareNet official Marra, a former social worker, notes, "I used to be in favor of condom education for kids." But, she adds, "I couldn't ignore the facts in front of me. I couldn't ignore the number of girls becoming teenage mothers, making great sacrifices in their goals and dreams. I came to believe that teaching abstinence is the right approach."
John Young isn't so sure, and further laments that the CareNet program omitted any mention of civil unions or questions of sexual identity for gay and lesbian students. "A multi-team school event on sexuality that doesn't even mention their concerns," he said, "sends a strong message to them that they are invisible and should remain so."