Project SOS, a Jacksonvile-based abstinence education program, has received more than $6.5 million in federal funding through the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services since 2002 — including $454,000 in September 2010. This despite the fact that the group has been cited for teaching false information about HIV and is a supporter of Ugandan pastor Martin Ssempa, one of the most outspoken advocates of legislation in that country that prescribes the death penalty for homosexuals.
Project SOS’ federal funding came through the Administration of Children and Families, an agency of the Department of Health and Human Services, via grants for Community Based Abstinence Education and a Healthy Marriage Demonstration grant. The abstinence education funding is made available through Title V (.pdf) of the Social Security Act. A provision of Title V requires that states provide a $3 match for every $4 in federal money.
Project SOS was founded in 1993 by former St. Johns County School Board member Pam Mullarkey and provides abstinence-only programs to public schools in several Florida counties.
At least two national watchdog groups, however, call into question the program’s accuracy and efficacy.
The “Go APE (Abstinence Protects Everyone)” curriculum devised and taught by Project SOS was mentioned in a Sexuality Information and Education Council of the United States report on teaching misinformation about HIV and AIDS. In another report, by the American School Health Association, Project SOS’ in-school curriculum was evaluated on graphics, citation of current research and theory and was deemed “unacceptable” (.pdf) in overall content.
The group appears to have a broad reach in Florida schools.
According to an interview the group’s founder and president gave to the American Family Association in 2003, her program was projected to reach “50,000 kids.” A post on Project SOS’ own website claims the group has reached nearly 300,000 Florida students since its founding.
Also troubling are Mullarkey’s ties to Ugandan pastor Martin Ssempa, a vocal advocate for that country’s 2009 “Anti Homosexuality Bill” (.pdf), nicknamed the “Kill the Gays” law.
“Martin Ssempa is the man to watch,” Mullarkey has said, according to Ssempa’s website. “He’s the most powerful voice for abstinence in the world and his passion, charisma and character make his vital message irresistible.”
Ssempa has been connected to a number of high-profile American evangelicals. Among them is Scott Lively, author of the anti-gay book The Pink Swastika, whom some in the media credit with creating fertile ground for the Ugandan “Kill the Gays” bill after a 2009 visit to the country. Lively, in an interview with Current TV last year, said he still considered Ssempa a good friend.
In 2005, Pastor Rick Warren, another well known evangelical and the author of The Purpose Driven Life, kicked off a worldwide anti-AIDS effort, bringing in Ssempa to champion the effort. Warren subsequently condemned Ssempa after his support for the “Kill the Gays” bill came to light.
Most recently, Ssempa was arrested in December 2010 on blackmail charges for allegedly hiring a man to claim he was sodomized by fellow Ugandan pastor Robert Kayanja. According to media accounts, Ssempa and two other pastors sought to tarnish Kayanja’s reputation because they suspected him of being involved in “homosexual practices.”
In a phone interview with The Florida Independent, Mullarkey said she was unaware of any controversy surrounding Ssempa or his support of the so-called “Kill the Gays” bill.
The Independent provided Mullarkey with numerous links to news articles and YouTube clips, including video of Ssempa calling for the death penalty for homosexuals (whom he refers to as “pedophiles”) while claiming to ABC News that homosexuals eat feces.
“I know Martin well enough to know that because of his Christian faith he would never support the death penalty,” Mullarkey said when asked about Ssempa’s support of a bill that would punish “aggravated homosexuality” with death.
Mullarkey went on to praise Ssempa as a “change agent” who took a stand for abstinence education as a way to rid Uganda of HIV/AIDS. “At the university, Martin took a stand — he had them burning condoms as a commitment to abstinence,” she said.
Discussing the fact that Ssempa lost “almost half his family” to AIDS, Mullarkey told the Independent that homosexuals in Africa “have destroyed people’s lives.”
Mullarkey would not denounce Ssempa’s actions surrounding the anti-gay bill. She later told the Independent she emailed Ssempa and is “waiting for his response” before she “will make a statement” on the issue.
In addition to taxpayer funding, Project SOS recieved a grant through the PGA’s Player’s Championship golf tournament. According to a link on Project SOS’s website, a three-year grant was awarded the program in 2008. The PGA gave Project SOS $35,500 in 2008, $10,000 in 2009 and $10,000 in 2010.
PGA representative Laura Hill told the Independent in an email that the grant received by Project SOS was only for two years and “ended in 2010.”
Asked about Mullarkey’s ties to Ssempa and the citation of Project SOS teaching misinformation about HIV/AIDS, Hill emailed us to say that the PGA “will have no comment.”
Beverly Slough, vice chair of the St. Johns County School Board from Mullarkey’s former district, endorses the organization, specifically citing the “factual information” it provides to students. Responding to links provided by the Independent to reports of Project SOS’ use of incorrect information, Slough noted, “I need to research the articles you reference,” and made no further comment.
As to Project SOS’ ties with Ssempa, Slough said, “I was not aware of Dr. Mullarkey’s support of the person you reference. I assume it is a private endorsement, outside her organization. She is welcome to her private opinions. Personally, I do not support the death penalty for homosexuals.”
Clay Yarborough, a Jacksonville city councilman, also endorses the work of Project SOS, according to a statement on the organization’s website. Last year, Yarborough created controversy when he asked a Jacksonville Human Rights Commission nominee about his stance on same-sex marriage and ties to Islam. Critics charged that Yarborough’s questions were out of line, since they weren’t relevant to duties of the position.
Yarborough also went on record stating he would prefer that homosexuals not hold public office in Florida. He did not respond to a request for comment.
Another federally funded abstinence program in Colorado — formerly known as WAIT Training, but now named the Center for Relationship Training — also once supported Ssempa’s message. The group booked speaking engagements for him and developed a video, a website and business cards for the Ugandan pastor.
In January 2010, however, the group officially distanced itself from Ssempa after being made aware of his connection to the “Kill the Gays” bill several months prior, and after WAIT Training founder Joneen Mackenzie received a death threat over the group’s support of Ssempa.
In light of the brutal murder of Ugandan gay rights activist David Kato last month, there is renewed national focus on the “Kill the Gays” bill, which could be voted on in the Ugandan parliament as early as this month.