Faith groups fill void as abstinence funds dry up
Associated Press
Saturday, January 23, 2010

NASHVILLE, Tenn. --- Jeiel Ballard and his girlfriend, both 16, were dressed up in their best attire, ready for a night of dancing and fun.

There were no close embraces or risque moves on the dance floor last Saturday to test chaperones. The "purity ball," sponsored by their Seventh-day Adventist Church, featured a vow to abstain from sex until marriage and offered tips on "appropriate" touching between the sexes.

"It's tough, but when you have sex at an early age it can become addictive," Jeiel said. "And when you get addicted ... it can lead you down the wrong path."

Expect to see more such events now that abstinence-only sex education programs have lost their federal government support, and churches and other religious groups are stepping in to keep the message alive.

"With funding being cut from the government, you're going to see more responsibility placed on churches in the community to carry this banner," said Michael Polite, the assistant pastor at Riverside Chapel Seventh-day Adventist Church in Nashville, which collaborated with other Adventist churches for the ball.

"And I think when we do our job, it will show the government this type of education is still necessary," he said.

THERE'S A MEASURE in the U.S. Senate to restore about $50 million to abstinence education, but its passage is uncertain and it would restore funding to less than half of what it had been under the Bush administration.

One advantage of not using federal money is more freedom and creativity. At the purity ball, Polite uses ballroom dancing as the platform to teach teens how to interact without being tempted.

A dance instructor showed "how a woman should be touched, how a man should be touched" without being sexual, Polite said.

"It doesn't have to be any of the dirty bumping and grinding," said James Brothers, an instructor at Dance World of Nashville. "It's just a great way to express yourself and really enjoy it, while still being classy at the same time."

Mathew Staver, the founder of Liberty Counsel, which for five years has promoted a national Day of Purity for teens, said depending on private money could benefit the abstinence message.

"I think people are able to participate and understand the importance, and then you don't have the government purse strings attached where it's on today and off tomorrow," Staver said. "People ... will take ownership of it."

Gianna Snell organized a purity ball for teenagers at her church in Lexington, Ky. Snell said she and her husband are proof that people can wait until marriage -- they abstained from sex during their two-year courtship.

"At times, it was tough," Snell said. "I had someone who had the same goal, and we both made that commitment to each other once we started dating."

Jason Burtt directs a nondenominational group called Silver Ring Thing based outside Pittsburgh that uses comedy, drama, music videos and testimonies to promote abstinence in events each year around the country.

"We try to relate to students on the level and the forms of communication they deal with every day, and just talk to them about the realities of sexual activity," said Burtt, who estimates the group reached about 60,000 students and parents in 2009.

REGARDLESS OF WHERE the message comes from, critics of abstinence-only programs say there's no solid evidence they work.

President Obama's budget approves $114 million for a new "teenage pregnancy prevention" initiative that will fund only programs having evidence of success. Supporters cite data to back their argument that abstinence-only programs can be beneficial.

According to the Health Department in Hamilton County, Tenn., teen pregnancy in Chattanooga has decreased by 72 percent, and On Point Executive Director Lesley Scearce said her program -- founded in 1991 -- has played a major role in that.

"Part of the danger in the cuts is that we're seeing incredible outcomes," said Scearce, whose program will lose $564,000 a year -- 40 percent of its budget. "This funding has allowed us to be a consistent educational presence ... and we've been able to do it through the schools."

Valerie Huber, the executive director of the National Abstinence Education Association, pointed to a study in Virginia that showed students who took part in abstinence programs were about half as likely to initiate sex as their peers.

She said more than 130 programs around the country -- serving roughly 1.5 million youths -- will be affected by the cut.

From the Saturday, January 23, 2010 edition of the Augusta Chronicle
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