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The American ideal is virginity until about age 26. That's the $80 million message resonating, with variable fidelity, across 48 states including Florida.

For the first time, federal money is paying for educational programs that promote celibacy until marriage. Florida has received more than $2.2 million for such an effort, and nearly $200,000 of that has come to Central Florida. But critics think the program is unrealistically moral.

"If the Congress and the states are serious about helping young people delay sexual behaviors and grow into healthy, responsible adults, they will support a comprehensive approach to sexuality education that has a proven track record in accomplishing these goals," says Debra W. Haffner, president of Sexuality Information and Education Council of the United States (SIECUS), a nonprofit group that released a report this week detailing where the money has gone.

The report says, with evident relief, that many states are breaking the law by applying some of the funds to programs that promote abstinence as one way to avoid teen trouble -- perhaps the best way, but not the only way. Still, "the federal abstinence-only program is beginning to change the landscape of sexuality education," a press release with the report says.

The struggle is part of the culture war, the idea promoted by social conservatives that American culture, dominated by sexual permissiveness and liberal politics, is to blame for high teen birth rates, crime and poverty.

Sen. Lauch Faircloth (R-N.C.), who lost re-election last year, inserted the program into the 1996 welfare repeal law, allocating $50 million each year until 2002. The law contains a matching-money provision that forces states to come up with $3 for every $4 from the feds. (California and New Hampshire opted out of the program.) The total money spent will come to nearly half a billion dollars -- not much by federal standards.

But immediately the warriors massed. On one side are the conservative Christians, who read the bill as a victory. Part of the law is an eight-part test that decrees every dollar must be used to promote to teen-agers and pre-teens a strict abstinence policy until marriage -- which typically occurs at about age 26. "We tell them this is the way it was intended to be, regardless of whether you have a parent who is single and bringing in a boy-friend," says Kenneth Scrubbs, program director for Mary's Shelter in Maitland, a nonprofit that received an $81,000 grant.

On the other side are researchers and health officials who counsel teens about sexually transmitted diseases, pregnancy and a host of related issues.

Conservatives battled to keep the money out of state health departments. In Florida, the health department heard proposals then made 28 grants, many to private and church-affiliated nonprofits. Some local health departments also received money. The Orange County Health Department's Teen Pregnancy Prevention Program, for example, received a $116,000 grant. But "the real service for this will be done by the Catholic diocese's Respect Life office," says Michael Dey, the project director.

Many health professionals argue that abstinence-only education fails too many children. A 1995 study in California "found the program did not increase the amount of young people abstaining -- in some schools, the opposite," says SIECUS director of public policy Daniel Daley.

The program in that study is called Education Now and Babies Later, or "ENABL." Begun in Atlanta, it has become a staple program in many public school districts, including some in Florida. ENABL usually includes information about contraceptives, but the California version did not. "That has raised a lot of questions about whether you can take an abstinence program that does include information on contraceptives, strip out the contraceptive information and still be effective," says Daley.

Scrubbs says his program, working in Sanford and Altamonte Springs, has reached more than 800 children so far between the ages of 7 and 9. It includes videos, worksheets, skits and one-on-one counseling, he says. His work follows the ENABL program. "After they complete the five-week program they can come to us," he says.

Scrubbs has no doubt about his program's efficacy. As a minister, coach and teacher at Seminole High, "I have taken this message of ethics and a moral code since I have been here," he says. "There are people who give children a mixed message. To me, that says we don't have control over ourselves and our behavior. But we are not animals; we can control our behavior." And the consequences of failure are too great. "I want the kids to become tax payers, if you know what I mean."

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