Broadcast on Friday, April 4, 2003 by the Tallahassee Democrat (Florida)
Florida: Pamphlet runs afoul of ACLU
Religious-Themed AIDS Information Booklet Paid for with State Money
by Nancy Cook Lauer
What would Jesus do about AIDS? The answer can be found in a 16-page brochure - a pamphlet paid for with taxpayer money.
The American Civil Liberties Union, in a letter Thursday to Florida Secretary of Health John Agwunobi, is demanding the state remove the brochure from a list of approved materials that community agencies purchase with state funds.
"It's clearly unconstitutional," said Howard L. Simon, executive director of the ACLU of Florida. "It is not permissible for the state to spend a dime endorsing a particular theological point of view."
According to the brochure, "A Christian Response to AIDS," Jesus would offer the AIDS victim "a loving touch." Every page of the pamphlet contains Biblical references and illustrations of Jesus and other Christians interacting with AIDS patients. The back cover features a Department of Health logo, along with information about a community group that receives state grants.
"Jesus is our hope. ... If we are to love as Jesus loved, we each must face the issues of AIDS," the brochure says. "Jesus' response to the ill and disabled was full of compassion - not condemnation, fear or rejection. Jesus set the example for us to follow."
Tom Liberti, chief of the Bureau of HIV/AIDS for the Health Department, said the brochure has been used in state-funded AIDS work for more than a decade. Liberti said the educational materials on the state list are approved by a review committee of Health Department employees and community members.
"I'll review it with our attorneys, try to make a determination whether we should keep it on the list or take it off the list," Liberti said. "We've taken very few complaints over the years about our materials."
Simon said the ACLU just recently found out about the brochure when someone spotted one at the Pensacola-based Community Information Network. The brochure also has been challenged successfully in Washington, D.C., and Pennsylvania.
Owen Neil, director of the Community Information Network, said his group uses the brochures in conjunction with churches and other groups to help the community better interact with those with HIV/AIDS.
"We purchased them with state funds and we purchased them from a state-approved list," Neil said.
He referred further questions to the Health Department. Liberti didn't know how much money the Pensacola agency had received, or how much went for educational materials. Typically, organizations get small state grants of about $100,000, with the bulk of the money going for personnel, rent and direct services to victims and only a few thousand dollars going for brochures, Liberti said.
The ACLU said the Health Department purchased some of the brochures directly as well. From Jan. 1, 2000, to May 7, 2001, the department purchased 13,482 of these brochures for distribution. Of 128 AIDS-related brochures and pamphlets purchased from this one vendor, Channing Bete Publishers, "A Christian Response to AIDS" was among the largest orders placed by the state, Simon said in his letter to Agwunobi.
Some lawmakers were shocked and disbelieving when the Tallahassee Democrat showed them a copy of the brochure Thursday.
"Our state funds should not be used for religious teachings," said Sen. Ron Klein, D-Delray Beach. "State funds should be used in a scientific manner."
An aide to Agwunobi, who was in Senate President Jim King's office apparently responding to questions about the brochure, said Agwunobi was surprised as well. Questions about it are sure to come up when the Senate takes up Agwunobi's confirmation over the next few weeks.
A spokeswoman for King said he had no comment until he learned more about the issue.
© 2003 Tallahassee Democrat