MINNEAPOLIS – The president of the country's best-known Christian ministry dedicated to helping people repress same-sex attraction through prayer is trying to distance the group from the idea that gay people's sexual orientation can be permanently changed or "cured."
That's a significant shift for Exodus International, the 36-year-old Orlando-based group that boasts 260 member ministries around the U.S. and world. For decades, it has offered to help conflicted Christians rid themselves of unwanted homosexual inclinations through counseling and prayer, infuriating gay rights activists in the process.
This week, 600 Exodus ministers and followers are gathering for the group's annual conference, held this year in a Minneapolis suburb. The group's president, Alan Chambers, told The Associated Press on Tuesday that the conference would highlight his efforts to dissociate the group from the controversial practice usually called ex-gay, reparative or conversion therapy.
"I do not believe that cure is a word that is applicable to really any struggle, homosexuality included," said Chambers, who is married to a woman and has children, but speaks openly about his own sexual attraction to men. "For someone to put out a shingle and say, 'I can cure homosexuality' — that to me is as bizarre as someone saying they can cure any other common temptation or struggle that anyone faces on Planet Earth."
Chambers has cleared books endorsing ex-gay therapy from the Exodus online bookstore in recent months. He said he's also worked to stop member ministries from espousing it.
Chambers said the ministry's emphasis should be simply helping Christians who want to reconcile their own particular religious beliefs with sexual feelings they consider an affront to scripture. For some that might mean celibacy; for others, like Chambers, it meant finding an understanding opposite-sex partner.
"I consider myself fortunate to be in the best marriage I know," Chambers said. "It's an amazing thing, yet I do have same-sex attractions. Those things don't overwhelm me or my marriage; they are something that informs me like any other struggle I might bring to the table."
Exodus has seen its influence wane in recent decades, as mainstream associations representing psychiatrists and psychologists have relegated reparative therapy to crackpot status. But Exodus and groups like it continue to influence many evangelicals and fundamentalists, and gay rights activists said the damage they inflict on individuals can be deep and lasting.
"We appreciate any step toward open, transparent honesty that will do less harm to people," said Wayne Besen, a Vermont-based activist who has worked to discredit ex-gay therapy. "But the underlying belief is still that homosexuals are sexually broken, that something underlying is broken and needs to be fixed. That's incredibly harmful, it scars people."
The cultural battle over ex-gay therapy drew national attention last year, after an activist with Besen's group, "Truth Wins Out," went undercover in a counseling clinic co-owned by U.S. Rep. Michele Bachmann, at the time a GOP presidential contender, and run by her husband, Marcus. The activist, John Becker, released footage seeming to show a counselor at the Minnesota clinic offering to help him overcome homosexual urges.
In earlier interviews, Marcus Bachmann had denied his practice seeks to "cure" gay people but said it was open to patients who wanted to talk about their homosexuality.
Besen said Truth Wins Out is unveiling a campaign this week to encourage lawmakers in all 50 states to ban reparative therapy from being performed on minors. The California state Senate passed a bill to do that last month, and Besen said similar legislation is likely to be introduced soon in at least three other states.
While Exodus has officially shied away from reparative therapy, the practice still has adherents.
"To hold out the idea that one's homosexual attractions can diminish, that the possibility of heterosexual attractions coming forth over a period of time — those things are possible," said David Pruden, chief operating officer with the National Association of Research and Therapy of Homosexuality, a professional association made up of about 2,000 therapists and others who still espouse such treatments.
Chambers acknowledged some Exodus affiliates might still offer reparative therapy. But he said "99.9 percent" of people he's encountered in two decades with Exodus were not able to completely rid themselves of same-sex attraction. He believes the organization must be honest about that when people come looking for help.
"I guess I'd like to see some sort of apology from leaders of Exodus for all the people they misled," said Jeffry Ford, a St. Paul psychologist who worked for an Exodus-linked group in the 1970s and '80s before splitting with his wife, coming out and strongly disavowing his past work.
Ford and other gay activists have planned a Thursday news conference to criticize Exodus for holding its conference in Minnesota just months before a statewide vote on a constitutional amendment that would ban gay marriage.
"These kinds of conferences help put fears in the world about what it means to be lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender," said Monica Meyer, executive director of OutFront Minnesota, the state's chief gay rights group. "For people who are questioning or LGBT, it sends them a message that there's something wrong with them."
Chambers said the timing is coincidental and Exodus isn't looking to influence Minnesota voters. While the group holds that any sexual activity outside a heterosexual marriage is sinful, he said he wants Exodus to disengage from politics.
"For those that don't hold to the same Biblical ethic that I do, I think there's room for further discussion without a culture war that has really served no one," Chambers said. "I think it's time for us in the church to move on from that fight."
Patrick Condon can be followed on Twitter at http://twitter.com/pcondonap