Colorado abstinence program with ties to anti-gay groups, Ugandan pastor, receives millions in federal funds

Colorado-based abstinence education group WAIT Training has received more than $8.3 million in federal funding since 2005, despite having several brushes with political controversy, including being cited in a Congressional report for misrepresenting the spread of HIV, having ties with a controversial leader of Uganda’s virulent anti-gay movement, and having given tens of thousands of its grant money to a right-wing anti-gay group.

Martin Ssempa

WAIT — which recently changed its name to the Center for Relationship Education — received a $1 million grant from the Administration for Children and Families (ACF) in September, as well as a $185,000 grant in April from the Centers for Disease Control (CDC).

Of WAIT’s federal funding, $7.2 million came through the ACF, an agency of the Department of Health and Human Services, and $1.1 million through the CDC. Grant types varied from Healthy Marriage, Capacity Building for school health programs and Community Based Abstinence Education funds.

Critics of ACF have charged that the federal agency suffers from poor oversight and a lack of transparency, and have raised questions about its repeated funding of religious groups that engage in far-right and often anti-gay political activities.

WAIT was one of several U.S. organizations that promoted Martin Ssempa, the outspoken Ugandan pastor supporting the Anti-Homosexuality Bill in Uganda. The bill has become known as the Kill the Gays Bill, as one of its provisions is the death penalty for “aggravated homosexuality.”

WAIT also gave some of its federal money during the 2007-08 fiscal year to the Rocky Mountain Family Council — an affiliate of the anti-gay Family Research Council and Focus on the Family — to conduct its marriage mentorship training events statewide.

“Erroneous” HIV information

The year before it started receiving federal funding, WAIT Training was cited by a Congressional report in 2004 for using taxpayer money to spread misinformation about the spread of HIV/AIDS.

The group was singled out in the 2004 Waxman Report (pdf), requested by U.S. Rep. Henry Waxman, D-Calif., for distributing educational materials that erroneously suggested that HIV could be transmitted through tears and sweat. Waxman requested the report on the cusp of federal support doubling for “abstinence only” education to $170 million in fiscal year 2005.

Joneen Mackenzie, founder of WAIT Training, responded to the Waxman claim, saying, “We never said that.”

She said that information on WAIT’s website regarding HIV transmission was from the CDC itself.

“The CDC posted that information [tears and sweat a risk for HIV transfer] on their website and then they took it down,” she said. “They found HIV in tears – we never said it was transmitted that way.”

Mackenzie added, “You can’t say there has never been a case or that there isn’t a chance HIV can be transferred that way [through tears].”

Karen Hunter, senior press officer for the CDC, denied Mackenzie’s claim the CDC had posted false information on its website. “I am not aware of any incorrect information ever being on the CDC website regarding transmission of HIV,” she said.

Hunter added that the CDC requires its grantees to adhere to accepted scientific standards.

“Activities funded through the cooperative agreement [with the CDC] are required to reflect sound theoretical approaches, to be consistent with scientifically researched evidence of effectiveness, and to be medically accurate,” Hunter said.

‘Kill the Gays’ Bill

Ugandan Pastor Martin Ssempa has been outspoken in his support for the Anti-Homosexuality bill in Uganda. The bill has been shorthanded to the Kill the Gays Bill (pdf) because the death penalty is imposed on those who commit “aggravated homosexuality.” For those not put to death, they are sentenced to life in prison for being gay.

WAIT officially severed its relationship with Ugandan Pastor Martin Ssempa in January 2010, according to a statement posted by Mackenzie on one of the group’s websites:

“Recent developments in Uganda and around the world associated with Martin Ssempa have caused us to sever all former associations with him. We have requested he remove all wording on his website that references our organization.”

In an interview with The Colorado Independent, Mackenzie said of Ssempa, “I don’t want to be associated with that – even if it [Ssempa’s support of “Kill the Gays” bill] is being reported incorrectly – I don’t want to be associated with him. We don’t want anyone to hurt anybody, we just want people to live well.”

Mackenzie said WAIT helped build Ssempa’s website, printed his business cards and worked with him to create a promotional video. She was unable to say how much time the organization spent developing promotional materials for Ssempa, noting that WAIT cannot locate any files it has from that time period.

However, according to Dr. Warren Throckmorton, a conservative evangelical who actively tracks and rebukes the Ugandan “Kill the Gays” bill, Mackenzie did not distance the group from Ssempa even after it knew of the Ugandan pastor’s support of the bill.

Throckmorton, an associate professor of psychology at Grove City College and fellow for psychology and public policy at the Center for Vision and Values, contacted Mackenzie in October 2009 about Ssempa’s affiliation with the Kill the Gays bill.

Throckmorton said Mackenzie “showed little enthusiasm when first contacted in October [2009] about Ssempa,” adding that “her vigor to get rid of Ssempa” didn’t kick in until January 2010.

Mackenzie posted this comment on Throckmorton’s blog in October 2009: “Please know that I will not comment on this bill as homosexuality or gender issues is not in our mission or our goals.”

On the blog, she also justified WAIT’s continued association with Ssempa:
“Martin Ssempra (sic) is associated with WAIT Training because he speaks to young people in Kampala, Uganda about issues of loving relationships and the prevention of HIV/AIDS.”

Mackenzie said the three-month lag cited by Throckmorton in distancing WAIT from Ssempa was because she didn’t realize the severity of the situation with Ssempa and Uganda. It was only several months later, after receiving a death threat on her cell phone, that she requested WAIT be removed from Ssempa’s website. Mackenzie even contacted Ssempa’s in-laws in Las Vegas to facilitate.

Mackenzie confirmed WAIT Training booked one speaking engagement for Ssempa “two or three years ago” at an international abstinence conference. WAIT could not confirm what organization had booked the engagement with Ssempa as it no longer has those records on file. WAIT is required to keep records on file for five years.

Mackenzie said no federal funds from the WAIT Training program were used to sponsor his speaking engagement nor to pay Ssempa.

As in the case of WAIT’s reported misstatements about HIV, CDC officials voiced no concern about the group’s affiliation with the controversial Ssempa.

“Funding by the CDC for one activity does not constitute an endorsement by the CDC or the federal government of all activities undertaken by the organization and none should be inferred,” CDC’s Hunter said. “The CDC is not responsible for the content of the individual organization’s Web pages or the organization’s other activities.”

Affiliations

WAIT’s 2007-08 grant application states the group allocated $55,000 in taxpayer money to the Rocky Mountain Family Council. According to Mackenzie, the Family Council was a sub-contractor for WAIT’s Healthy Marriage program for seven months.

In one of the Rocky Mountain Family Council (RMFC) blog posts, Family Research Council President Tony Perkins is referred to as a “good friend” of the RMFC. Another posits “….a tornado struck the Minneapolis area this week while the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America (ELCA) was voting to allow homosexual clergy to actively minister to it’s congregations … coincidence? Maybe.”

WAIT’s website described the aims of the Colorado Healthy Marriage Project as “deliver[ing] comprehensive, research-based, interactive, and fun, healthy relationship workshops throughout Colorado.”

Mackenzie also confirmed that much of the research on sexuality and abstinence that was posted on WAIT’s original website came from the conservative Heritage Foundation. There were also numerous links to Focus on the Family, Family Research Council and Heritage Foundation on resource pages. Mackenzie pointed out that she does also link to Planned Parenthood and the Sexual Information and Education Council (SIECUS) of the US, both recipients of federal funding and both considered liberal sexual health organizations.

“You can go on an on about our affiliations,” Mackenzie says. “We will work with anyone who cares about the health and well being of children. We are a poverty prevention project, a teen pregnancy prevention program, a wellness organization, a healthy marriage and responsible fatherhood project, a success sequencing organization teaching life, love and leadership skills.”

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Andy Kopsa

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