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Today’s a day for Purity

WWW – High school sophomore Ally Hall plans to exchange cards with her friends on Valentine’s Day. But her true tribute to the romance of the season will come today, in the principal’s office at Lebanon High School in the small town of Lebanon, Ohio.

Hall has written a brief script to be read over the publicaddress system. Her message: The most romantic way to celebrate Feb. 14 is to honor it as a “Day of Purity,” by pledging to remain chaste until marriage.

“People say, ‘Don’t you get made fun of? Don’t your friends think you’re weird?’ ” said Hall, 15. “But if I can stand up for saving sex for marriage, it gives them a choice. They think, ‘If she can do it, I can do it too.’ ”

Hundreds of teenagers across the country will join Hall in wearing white this Valentine’s Day to signal a commitment to abstinence. The Day of Purity was started three years ago by the Liberty Counsel, a Christian law firm in Orlando, Fla. This year, it has backing from the Rev. Jerry Falwell.

Teens from about 200 schools and about 800 youth groups plan to participate, said Rena Lindevaldsen, a lawyer who put aside her customary work of litigating against same-sex marriage to coordinate the day’s activities. She’s encouraging teens to download and sign chastity pledges – and to spread the word with posters in the school cafeteria, letters to the local paper, and free handouts of white bracelets and T-shirts.

In Miami, a nonprofit group called Abstinence Between Strong Teens will hold rallies at two public schools. In Cedarville, Ohio, teen girls who attended a church-sponsored Purity Conference over the weekend will distribute literature at school.

And in Ewing, Ky., 13-year-old Kirsten Bryant plans to wear a Day of Purity T-shirt to her annual Valentine’s Day Bible study with friends. “I’m a big purity fan,” she said. “I really like standing up for God’s way.”

Launched in the early 1990s, the teen abstinence movement has grown sharply in recent years, in part because abstinence education has received hundreds of millions of dollars in federal funding.

Dozens of websites sell rings, key chains, pendants – even watches and visors – embossed with messages to remind teens of their commitment to abstinence.

A book published by the conservative group Focus on the Family lays out a “purity game plan for guys,” promising to build them into warriors able to defeat the “sharp-fanged, drooling monster” – lust – “that crouches at your door, waiting to poison your life.”

Groups such as the Silver Ring Thing in Moon Township, Pa., draw hundreds each week to rock-concert-style events that combine preaching, stand-up comedy, music videos and student testimony to promote abstinence.

For a March 1 event in Corona, the group has booked the sanctuary at Crossroads Church; it seats 3,200.

One of the best-known abstinence promoters, True Love Waits of Nashville, says about 2.5 million teens have signed its pledge cards, which state in part: “I make a commitment to God, myself, my family, my friends, my future mate and my future children to be sexually abstinent from this day until the day I enter a biblical marriage relationship.”

The movement has become established enough that “even kids who don’t save sex for marriage really respect those who stand for purity,” said Bryant, the eighth-grader from Kentucky.

Groups promoting abstinence usually define that to mean no sexual touching. Studies suggest, however, that many teenagers don’t have such stringent standards.

Research published in the spring in the Journal of Adolescent Health found that teens who pledged abstinence waited longer to have sex for the first time and had fewer partners. But they were much more likely than their peers to engage in oral and anal sex, and much less likely to use condoms. So their rates of sexually transmitted diseases were nearly equal to their nonpledging peers.

Overall, 47% of high school students have had sex at least once, according to a 2003 survey by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. That percentage has fallen steadily from a high of 54% in 1991.

Accepting the reality that some teens do choose to have sex, clergy from the Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice put together an alternative to abstinence programs. Their “Keeping It Real” curriculum, aimed at black teens, urges abstinence as the first, best choice – but also gives frank information about birth control, pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases.

“Pledges are fine; they work for some people,” said Leslie Watson, who designed the curriculum. “But it’s important to present different approaches. We meet our young people where they are.”

This Valentine’s Day, the coalition plans to send teen participants an e-mail urging them to “seek real relationships … slow down … wait.”

Hall, the sophomore who will be making a Day of Purity announcement at Lebanon High, has no illusions that it will suddenly make it cool to be a virgin. But she takes comfort in knowing she won’t be alone in trying to promote that message this Valentine’s Day.

“It’s really hard to live up to the expectations that God has for you,” she said. “I want to have the same popularity that other girls have, but it’s not worth the cost. Knowing that people in other states are also doing this encourages me.”


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