Sex Education Funding Stirs Up A Conflict In Orange County, Calif.

Officials in Orange County, Calif., are embroiled in a debate over tax funding for health-education programs run by Planned Parenthood.

Religious Right organizations went on a tear in March and besieged the Orange County Board of Supervisors to end the funding. The grant in question – $291,788 – funds sex education programs, including efforts to reduce the spread of sexually transmitted diseases. The money is not used to pay for abortions.

The issue came to a head after the county received more than $7 million from the Tobacco Settlement Revenue program. The supervisors decided to allocate some of it to pay for community health clinics. When right-wing activists got wind of the grant to Planned Parenthood, they went ballistic.

Leading the charge was the Rev. Wiley Drake, a Baptist minister best known for praying for the deaths of his opponents (including Americans United Executive Director Barry W. Lynn).

Appearing before the board in March, Drake labeled Planned Parenthood “a baby-killing organization” and referred to himself as “ordained by Almighty God.” He told the board, “[God] will hold you accountable for what you do today.”

Amazingly, Drake’s over-the-top rant worked. The supervisors voted unanimously to suspend the funding to Planned Parenthood. Some even suggested diverting the money to Birth Choice Health Clinics, a sectarian organization that preaches “abstinence-only” views and urges women not to have abortions.

Reaction was swift, with several community groups assailing the vote.

“We are appalled that some of you presented your religious views as justification for rescinding an existing contract with a group that was providing a much-needed public service and was doing it well,” Carla Westfall, an activist with Americans United’s Orange County Chapter, told the board in April.

Allyson Sonenshine, Planned Parenthood board president, gave the supervisors a petition opposing the move with 2,400 signatures.

“The need is greater than ever,” Sonenshine told them.

In April, board members voted to reinstate the contract after attorney Nicholas Chrisos advised them that they may have violated its termination clauses and improperly based their decision on moral/religious grounds.

The board went on to approve a new policy that will make it more difficult for Planned Parenthood to qualify for funding in the future. Planned Parenthood officials, who said they have plans to seek funding for a program that provides mammograms for the uninsured, have indicated they will sue if they are unlawfully excluded.

The Alliance Defense Fund, a Religious Right legal group based in Arizona, has offered to represent the board for free if there is a lawsuit.