Return to Mississippi, HB999’s first year and ACLU investigates Bryant administration

NOTE:  Scroll to bottom of page for info on the saucy bit about ACLU + Bryant Administration = Investigation of misuse of state/federal funds!

I head back to Mississippi this weekend to wrap this project which began last fall.  I have hoped to shed light on the new sex-ed law, religion and politics in Mississippi through the lens of:

1.  Mississippi has the highest teen birthrate in the nation

2.  Mississippi is the most religious state in the Union

How are these things related?  How do the people – the actual people of Mississippi see the connection (if at all)?  How do the religious beliefs of few people in power impact the lives of the many?  Is teen pregnancy and the cycle of poverty something that can be at least in part addressed through comprehensive, age appropriate sex ed?  How does “abstinence plus” (Mississippi’s term for comprehensive sex education) perform versus “abstinence only until marriage” programs?

I have met lots of people on both side of the sex education divide.  I have spoken with leaders of the community who are staunchly against teaching kids accurate sexual/reproductive health favoring instead abstinence only.  People like Dr. Beverly and Roy Mc Millian who protest the state’s only reproductive health and abortion clinic in Jackson every single day.  Who both told me that abortion and even birth control is murder.  Roy claims to have the ear of Governor Phil Bryant and gave me an official Bryant administration ink pen as proof.

I spoke to Nycole Campbell Lewis, the Governor’s Teen Pregnancy Prevention director, Governor Bryant, members of the Mississippi Department of Health, MS Dept. of Human Services, the heads of the Women’s Fund, and NOW.  Campbell-Lewis backed out of a scheduled interview at the last moment so I was only able to chat with her in passing a couple of times then “officially” via email.

I have spoken to students in Oxford, kids in Jackson, grown women who have shared with me their experience with sex, and sexual education (or lack of it) during their pre-adolescent and teen years.  I have spoken with black women, white women, religious people, pastors, school administrators, and on and on and on.

This return trip to Mississippi will serve to put a cap on my six months of research.  I will also be recording a three-part series in conjunction with Mississippi Public Broadcasting to discuss HB999, religion, race, poverty and politics.  So far these are the three stories I am pursuing for MPB:

1.  Expert panel discussion about the language and meaning of HB999 – many people don’t even know what is in the law and many people may be surprised.  It will also serve as a brief overview of the evolution of HB999 – a bill 20 years in the making.

2.  Race & Religion (in regard to teen pregnancy and birth) – same format – panel discussion with experts about the enduring legacy of racial stereotypes, and entrenched religion as it informs not only public policy making but local tradition, religious expression and what in many cases has turned out to be ritual shaming of pregnant teens and punitive cultural and religious tradition aimed at teen girls.

3.  Talking to teens – teens who went through the first year of “ab plus” and teens who went through “ab-only”

I have the option to do another piece – I am open to suggestions but am considering a photo series/audio slideshow (digging back to my photo days) on teen parents/teen parenting groups (there is one I have heard about in Starkville that sounds promising).

About that ACLU investigation:

Though it wasn’t my goal when I headed to Mississippi to uncover misuse of funds by an uber-religious governor and his administration, it was no surprise when I started noticing money flowing out of state coffer to religious teen pregnancy summits, to anti-gay groups – specifically Truth in Action Ministries, and (possible misuse of) TANF funds going to a crisis pregnancy center in Tupelo to fund ab-only programs.

I look into these things.  Somehow over the years I have carved out a little niche for myself, researching and writing about the misuse of federal funds faith based organizations.  So, naturally, I followed that trail.

A few months ago an ACLU attorney from New York contacted me.  I had interviewed her several years ago about a similar situation where several abstinence programs were misusing our tax dollars to proselytize.

Someone forwarded several of my Mississippi blog posts to her and she just wanted to talk a bit about them.  The ACLU was going to start an investigation.  But, I couldn’t say anything at that point.

Well, now I have been given permission to say this: the ACLU is investigating “this issue”.  Read: the Bryant’s possible misuse of federal funds in at least one instance:  the teen pregnancy summit I attended (link here).  I confirmed that $1500 from the Department of Health was used to secure the space at the Jackson Convention Center.

This is a problem, one that Mississippi continues to have: using state and federal funds for expressly religious purposes.  They were sued a couple of years ago for the same damn thing.

I am not sure the status of the investigation but hope to follow up on several of public records requests I made of the MS Dept. of Health and the MS Dept. of Human Services. Stay tuned!

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