04/12/2009 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

The Immorality of Teaching Abstinence Only

Last week, the Obama administration released its first peek at its 2010 budget. One part that has received little attention so far calls for "state, community-based, and faith-based efforts to reduce teen pregnancy using evidence-based models. The program will fund models that stress the importance of abstinence while providing medically accurate and age-appropriate information to youth who have already become sexually active."

It's about time.

To date, the federal government has invested more than $1.5 billion in grant programs supporting abstinence-only education programs, despite growing evidence of the ineffectiveness of these programs. In 2007, an evaluation funded by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services showed that youth enrolled in abstinence-only education programs were no more likely than other youth to delay sexual initiation, have fewer sexual partners or abstain entirely from sex.

Other studies have amply demonstrated that abstinence-only programs frequently are medically inaccurate, withhold vital information about contraception and disease prevention, and bear the taint of a moralizing religious ideology.

Today, the Religious Institute on Sexual Morality, Justice, and Healing sent a letter to the White House, on behalf of hundreds of religious leaders around the country, calling on the administration to end federal funding for abstinence-only-until-marriage programs. We are urging the President to renew our national commitment to comprehensive sexuality education that honors truth, respects diverse values, and prepares our youth to lead healthy and productive lives.

Continued investment in ineffective, irresponsible programs that mislead our children is morally wrong. That's why more than 925 ordained clergy and national religious leaders have endorsed the Religious Institute's Open Letter to Religious Leaders about Sex Education. The Open Letter states in part: "Education that respects and empowers young people has more integrity than education based on incomplete information, fear, and shame." It urges policy makers, school officials and educators to provide sexuality education that complements the guidance young people receive from their parents and faith communities.

The signatories of the Open Letter are part of a growing movement for comprehensive sexuality education in the U.S. religious community. A majority of mainline Protestant clergy support comprehensive sex education programs in public schools, according to a national survey released last week by Public Religion Research. At least 10 faith traditions and the National Council of Churches of Christ have policies supporting sexuality education in schools. And more than 15 denominations and faith-based organizations are part of the National Coalition to Support Sexuality Education.

As religious leaders, we believe there are strong moral foundations for giving young people the information they need to delay sexual intimacy, develop their capacity for moral discernment, and make mature, responsible decisions. Teaching and preaching abstinence alone is not enough.

We pray that the President, and the Congress, will create the first national, comprehensive sexuality education program that puts the well-being of our young people first. Our moral obligation to our young people requires nothing less.