Multnomah County is suing the federal government over new criteria for obtaining federal sex education grants, arguing the new criteria prioritizes applicants who promote abstinence-only sex education programs.
At the center of the lawsuit is the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services'
grants, from which the county currently receives nearly $1.25 million annually over a five-year period.
According to the lawsuit – filed against HHS, HHS Secretary Alex Azar and Senior Policy Adviser Valerie Huber – the new criteria for TPP grants are no longer in line with Congress’ original intention for the program. Those intentions, the lawsuit argues, are to replicate comprehensive, evidence-based sex education programs that have been proven effective "through rigorous evaluation."
But the county says the language of an HHS document outlining eligibility for the grant, known as a Federal Opportunity Announcement (FOA), was re-written to prioritize applicants who aim to use TPP funds for programs that promote abstinence education "that Congress consciously chose not to mandate" in creating the program.
The new FOA was announced the day after a federal judge in Washington D.C. ruled against the Trump administration in a lawsuit challenging its decision to cut the TPP program completely earlier this year.
"One of the problems is this FOA opens up the competition up to a wide-range of programs that Congress never intended to fund – these un-tested programs," said Jeffrey Dubner, senior counsel at Democracy Forward, which is representing the county in the lawsuit along with Pacifica Law Group.
"It's a rebranding of the same approaches that teach that the only acceptable behavior – the standard for human behavior – is not to have any sexual activity outside of marriage, and that any sex outside of marriage and in particularly of course teen sex is a risk behavior," Dubner said.
That hasn't been the approach of sex education programs under the Multnomah County Health Department, the only recipient of TPP grants in the state of Oregon. The county health department has used the funds on a project known as the Adolescents and Communities Together (ACT) project, which focused on reducing health disparities between white teens and their black, Latino and Native American counterparts. It's also avoided abstinence-only sex education.
"When you get no information or you get a 'just wait' message and that's the only message, it's a recipe for poor health and for bad sex," said Kim Toevs, a public health director with the Multnomah County Health Department.
"Our goal isn't really as a government or public schools to enforce a certain morality or a certain set of values around whether young people should be sexually active or not. It's really to help them make their own choices with information."
Toevs says the concern is that the county is at a disadvantage for TPP grant funds if it doesn't apply with intentions to use an abstinence-based approach to sex education. The county's lawsuit seeks to stop HHS from distributing money under the criteria outlined under the new FOA.
"That's not in alignment with how Congress intended the money to be spent, and, in fact, it's not in alignment with good practice, and it's not in alignment with what we here can actually apply for," Toevs said.
"It's poor policy and it's unfair to our young people and to their future," she said.
Multnomah County's lawsuit comes a little over a week after the administration lost yet another court battle over TPP grants against a county in Washington state. King county sued the federal government in February after the HHS prematurely ended TPP grants. The lawsuit requested an injunction to block the administration from terminating the grants two years early, "and to restrain federal officials from applying an ideological bias to deny science-based projects that have been rigorously vetted and already funded by Congress."
A federal judge ruled HHS acted unlawfully when it abruptly canceled the grants, vacating the department's decision to terminate King County's grant award. The ruling ordered the agency to process the county's application "as if HHS had not terminated King County's grant award."
Multnomah County's lawsuit, meanwhile, is believed to be the first lawsuit against the new criteria for re-applying for TPP grants.
HHS did not immediately respond to a request for comment in response to Multnomah County's lawsuit.
While Multnomah County is the main grantee of TPP funds, the county contracts services from Planned Parenthood Columbia Willamette, Native American Youth and Family Center, Self Enhancement Inc., Latino Network, Boys and Girls Clubs of Portland Metropolitan Area.
"To reapply for these grants, they've radically changed the terms of the program, and that's what the lawsuit is going to be addressing," said Jimmy Radosta, communications and marketing director with Planned Parenthood Advocates of Oregon.
"These new requirements are putting young people at risk. All young people deserve to have all the information they need to make safe, healthy choices."
HHS is scheduled to close applications for TPP grants June 29.
This story will be updated.