A pledge to purity

Saturday, June 11, 2005

TOLEDO, Ohio

When Katie Chromik put a silver ring on her finger and promised at church to save sex for marriage, her junior high school friends giggled. l "Some people have made bets on me that I'm not going to make it," she said. "It just makes me more determined."

Even if pledging purity draws snickers, it's still gaining acceptance among some teens, especially those who attend Christian schools and churches. They say they're standing up to a barrage of sex-related messages.

"It comes at you in every direction," said Kayla Ballmer, an eighth-grader at Toledo Christian School. "Movies, TV, radio, magazines. Even on clothing."

The movement is driven by Christian educators and religious groups promoting abstinence education.

The Silver Ring Thing, backed by $1.2 million in federal grants since 2003, is one such program. It has expanded its reach in the United States and internationally, growing the most in South Africa, where HIV/AIDS is spreading. A year ago, founder Denny Pattyn took his message to England and Scotland, and he plans a DVD-based program to reach even more young people.

The organization, based in suburban Pittsburgh, puts on shows at churches nationwide that include "Saturday Night Live"-style skits, music videos and a message of abstinence. Young people are given a silver ring and decide whether they want to pledge to abstain from sex.

Three out of four choose to wear the ring, Pattyn said.

Critics say the message is too focused on abstinence alone, which is hard to maintain and, if broken, can lead to unprotected sex and a higher risk of disease.

Deb Hauser of Advocates for Youth, which promotes education about birth control, also said that the abstinence-only groups teach young people that condoms fail more often than they really do.

"The question is are they doing more damage than good?" Hauser said.

But Pattyn contends that the safe-sex message taught in schools has failed. Young people, ages 15 to 24, account for about half the new cases of sexually transmitted diseases in the U.S. annually.

Funding for the Silver Ring Thing program has also drawn criticism.

The American Civil Liberties Union filed a lawsuit May 16 that accused the federal government of improperly using taxpayer money to fund Christian religious activities in the program. The Bush administration has increased funding for abstinence education, emphasizing abstinence over condoms to stop the transmission of HIV and other diseases.

The silver ring movement began in 1994 through the Southern Baptist Convention's publishing house, Lifeway Christian Resources, in Nashville, Tenn. Its True Love Waits program has reached an estimated 3 million teens, said spokeswoman Kristi Cherry, and ring sales have grown by 10 percent to 15 percent over each of the last three years.

There's no standard silver ring. Some are engraved with Scripture or phrases such as "True Love Waits" or "Faith." Some are enhanced with a diamond or a cross. They can be worn on any finger or even a thumb. Teens also can declare their intention via wrist bands, bracelets, pins, watches and T-shirts.

Gina Layman, owner of Reger's Religious Bookstore in Toledo, had stopped selling the rings a few years ago because nobody wanted them, but has brought them back.

"Now it's a cool thing," she said. "It's mostly the parents buying for their kids."

But even those who make the pledge may not want others to know.

Boys who agree to abstinence are less likely to wear the rings, said Ron Rightnowar, spiritual life director at Toledo Christian. Some girls, worried they'll be questioned or teased, also won't wear the ring, said Ballmer, who took part in the Mayfair Plymouth ceremony with her father.

"That kind of defeats the purpose," she said.

Still, ring sales are strong.

Jerry Rady, a jeweler in Escondido, Calif., made the first ring carved with "True Love Waits" in 1994, and now sells about 3,500 purity rings a year, accounting for nearly all his sales.

Rady's sterling silver rings sell for $35 while the solid gold versions are priced at $245. Sales are strongest in the Bible Belt states of Texas and Florida, he said.

"It's part of the whole Christian movement," Rady said. "It's more vocal than it used to be. They don't feel like they have to hide it. It wouldn't have worked when I was a teenager, I can tell you that."

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