HARRISBURG - For the first time in years, the Rendell administration plans to disburse federal money to organizations and schools for abstinence-only sex education, despite complaints that such programs are discriminatory and ineffective.

The state Department of Health is applying for roughly $1.7 million in federal money for the abstinence-until-marriage program, which restricts teachers from discussing birth-control methods except to say that they fail.

The idea behind the program, advocates say, is to point out that the only way to avoid pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases is to abstain from sex. They also believe that sex-education programs that teach the merits of birth control and abstinence send a mixed message and end up confusing teenagers.

"Do we treat teenagers like animals in heat, or like people with a brain that have the ability to control themselves?" asked Leslee Unruh, founder of the nonprofit National Abstinence Clearinghouse. "We believe human beings can control their sexual desires and should be encouraged to."

Opponents counter that abstinence-only programs present biased and medically inaccurate information, leaving teenagers ill-equipped to prevent unwanted pregnancies and protect themselves from sexually transmitted diseases.

They say studies consistently have shown that abstinence-only programs are ineffective in delaying sexual activity in teenagers. They also believe the programs discriminate against gays and lesbians.

At least 17 states, including New Jersey, do not apply for federal funding for such programs, opponents say.

"There has been a groundswell of opposition to these programs from states across the country, and we thought we had put the issue to rest here in Pennsylvania, too," said Joe Fay, executive director of the Pennsylvania Coalition to Prevent Teen Pregnancy.

Since Gov. Rendell took office in 2003, the Department of Health has not distributed any such federal funding. Groups or organizations seeking such funding could apply to the federal government directly or receive it through millions of dollars in earmarks sponsored by Sen. Arlen Specter (R., Pa.).

What changed?

Holli Senior, Health Department spokeswoman, said the department did not want to stand in the way of community groups or schools that want to focus on abstinence-only.

Sshe acknowledged that abstinence-only funding conflicted with the department's philosophy that sex education should be comprehensive and should teach students about contraception and birth control as well as abstinence.

And she pointed out that the state would not put any of its money toward such programs.

"We realize this is a controversial issue," Senior said. "We are just trying to be fair across the board and make sure everyone has access to the funding they need."

Federal money for abstinence-only programs has been available since the early 1980s, but it was not until 1996 that the federal government stepped up its funding for such programs - roughly $50 million a year available to states, said Carol Petraitis, director of the Pennsylvania ACLU's reproductive freedom project. The ACLU opposes abstinence-only programs.

Before Rendell took office, Pennsylvania gave money to various community organizations and schools that wanted it. Evaluating those programs, a Health Department study released in 2004 found that they were largely ineffective in preventing teenagers from having sex. A federally funded study released last year produced similar results.

After Rendell became governor, the Health Department applied once for federal funding, but it applied late and returned the money because it had not been designated for specific groups.

Contact staff writer Angela Couloumbis at 717-787-5934 or acouloumbis@phillynews.com.