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ACLU: Ideologically Based Abstinence-Only-Until-Marriage Program Is out of Line with Science and State Law


A controversy erupted in Sonoma County, California over the organization, Free to Be, which conducts class presentations on abstinence-only-until-marriage in the county’s public middle schools and high schools. The organization receives a $540,000 grant under the federal government’s Community Based Abstinence Education (CBAE) program. CBAE grantees must abide by the federal eight-point definition of “abstinence education,” which states in part that “a mutually faithful monogamous relationship in the context of marriage is the expected standard of human sexual activity,” that “sexual activity outside of the context of marriage is likely to have harmful psychological and physical effects,” and that “bearing children out-of-wedlock is likely to have harmful consequences for the child, the child’s parents, and society.” These federal tenets of abstinence-only-until-marriage, however, directly conflict with California’s education code.[i]
Under the code, sexuality education in public schools must be medically accurate, free of bias, and comprehensive. Specifically, from grade seven on, all instruction must include information about abstinence while “providing medically accurate information on other methods of preventing pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases.” This instruction must “provide information about the effectiveness and safety of all FDA-approved contraceptive methods in preventing pregnancy, including, but not limited to, emergency contraception.”[ii] Moreover, the code stipulates, “instruction and materials shall be appropriate for use with pupils of all races, genders, sexual orientations, ethnic and cultural backgrounds, and pupils with disabilities.”[iii]
A parent, disturbed by the messages in Free to Be, notified the ACLU. “Free to Be violates state law not only by denying students important information about condoms and contraception, but also by including inaccurate, subjective, and biased information…,” Phyllida Burlingame, sex education director for the ACLU of Northern California, stated in a press release.[iv] For instance, the Free to Be curriculum likens condoms to a safety net and then asks students to observe “the holes in the net.” It goes on to say: “Condoms only protect the physical. And they still aren’t 100% safe!” (See SIECUS’ CA State Profile for more information).
The ACLU pressured the school board to remove the program, and in May the Sonoma County Office of Education sent an email to all superintendents and principals in the county stating that Free to Be was no longer permitted to give presentations in county schools. During the first week of June, the ACLU of Northern California also sent a letter to each school district in Sonoma County, requesting written confirmation that the abstinence-only instruction currently provided in some junior and high schools by Free to Be will be discontinued starting in the 20092010 school year.[v]
Individual school districts are now considering whether to challenge the Office of Education’s decision and are seeking legal counsel. According to some superintendents, Free to Be presentations serve as a supplement to the school’s sex education curriculum and are not intended to provide the full extent of the sex education students receive. However, parents and students alike argue that the organization provides an ideologically biased message and inaccurate information, which is harmful to students. In an article published in The Press Democrat, a recent graduate from a Sonoma county high school explained, “It’s causing problems because kids are being confused about what really is the truth and what really is fact.”
“California is one in a handful of states that leads the country in ensuring that young people receive medically accurate information on a broad range of sexual health related topics. It is the responsibility of school districts to uphold state law,” said William Smith, vice president for public policy at the Sexuality Information and Education Council of the United States. “Allowing an abstinence-only-until-marriage provider to present false and misleading information about contraception to students not only violates California’s education policy, but also places young people in harm’s way.” 

[i] Kerry Benefield, “Simmering sex-ed battle heats up,” The Press Democrat, 7 June 2009, accessed 17 June 2009, <>

[ii] See California Education Code Sections 51930 through 51939, Chapter No. 602, and Health Education Framework for California Public Schools: Kindergarten Through Grade Twelve; and California Health and Safety Code Division 120, Sections 151000–151003.

[iii] California Education Code.

[iv] ACLU, “ACLU Asks Sonoma County Schools to Comply With California Law on Sex Education,” Press Release Published 3 June 2009, accessed 17 June 2009 <>

[v] Ibid.