Baptist initiative aims to "liberate" gays

The Southern Baptist Convention has started an initiative to "liberate" gays from their homosexuality by befriending them and convincing them they should accept Jesus as their savior. At the denomination's annual meeting, which ends Wednesday night, leaders asked their 42,000 churches to reach out compassionately to gays, focusing on how Christianity can save them. "Homosexuals can find freedom from this sinful, destructive lifestyle," said Richard Land, head of the Southern Baptists' public policy arm. "They can be redeemed. They can be liberated."

The presentation Tuesday included testimony from a Southern Baptist pastor from Texas who said he realized that his strident criticism of homosexuals had prevented them from coming to him for help. There are several Christian groups in the United States that try to convince gays they should "become heterosexual."

But David Smith, spokesman for the Human Rights Campaign, a gay rights group, said those ministries generally are attached to "obscure" churches that do not have the influence of the Southern Baptists. "If the Southern Baptist Convention embraces such an outreach, it would be the largest denomination to do so," Smith said. "They're promoting 'love the sinner, hate the sin,' but they're really saying that gay people are bad, and that gives license to violence."

The convention is the biggest Protestant denomination in the country, with 16 million members. A Southern Baptist task force on ministry to gay people developed the initiative after they discovered that several of their churches and agencies were either conducting or supporting such outreach already. This latest push is meant to make these efforts a priority for churches around the country. The task force developed a Web site that has Bible study materials, testimonials from gays who claim to be no longer gay, and advice on helping people with AIDS.

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