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Supporters call it conversion therapy. Critics call it praying away the gay. Whatever name you use, it's creating a dispute in Christian circles about whether a person can change his or her sexual orientation.

As NPR's Barbara Bradley Hagerty reports, now, the largest ministry to gay Christians is rejecting the approach.

BARBARA BRADLEY HAGERTY, BYLINE: John Smid was 25 when he came out as a gay man. Three years later, he found religion - specifically, evangelical Christianity. The message was clear. You can't be a Christian and live a gay lifestyle. So he joined Exodus International, the largest ministry that tried to, quote, "cure people of same-sex attractions."

JOHN SMID: I followed everything they told me to follow. I was - I became one of the best ex-gays anybody could become.

HAGERTY: Smid married and eventually became the executive director of Love in Action, another so-called ex-gay ministry. For years, Smid underwent conversion or reparative therapy in which he analyzed his childhood wounds, learned to forgive and move on.

SMID: That was a good thing for me to do, but it was taught that those kinds of things would heal the roots of the homosexuality.

HAGERTY: But Smid says nothing worked.

SMID: I found, after 24 years, that the changes that I had hoped for or that I had prayed for actually never occurred.

HAGERTY: In 2008, Smid, who's still married, left the ex-gay ministry and came out.

Warren Throckmorton of the evangelical Grove City College has heard this before. Recently, he studied 239 men in so-called mixed orientation marriages where the husband is attracted to other men and the wife is heterosexual. About half the men had been through some conversion therapy. Over the course of their marriage, Throckmorton says...

WARREN THROCKMORTON: Their attractions to the same sex, in general, increased. The attractions to their spouse decreased.

HAGERTY: Another study by a researcher at Pat Robertson's Regent University came to the same conclusion. Throckmorton says the research by evangelical and secular scientists puts ex-gay ministries and conversion therapy on the defensive.

THROCKMORTON: They're not finding support within the professional community, that's for certain. And they're losing support within the evangelical community.

HAGERTY: Earlier this year, Alan Chambers, the president of Exodus International, addressed the Gay Christian Network, which was notable because it's more open to gay relationships. Chambers said that 99.9 percent of the people he had met through Exodus had not changed their sexual attraction. He told them there are no quick fixes.

ALAN CHAMBERS: No hocus pocus, no magic wands, no one, two, three, now be free. Go be straight, date and mate. Bing. The magic wand.

HAGERTY: Last month, Exodus made it official. It would no longer associate with or promote therapy that focuses on changing sexual attraction. Professor Robert Gagnon at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary says that's too extreme because he thinks conversion therapy sometimes works.

ROBERT GAGNON: It's not going to work for everybody. It might not even work for most people, but it will work for some people, so we're happy with anything that helps.

HAGERTY: But Chambers at Exodus says conversion therapy does not help. It damages because it makes people feel sinful for their natural inclinations. Worse, he says, the church can make people feel like outcasts.

CHAMBERS: I believe we've been hypocritical. I believe we have looked at the issue of same-sex attraction differently than we look at anything else.

HAGERTY: Like adultery or pride. But Professor Gagnon says that's because homosexual behavior is worse.

GAGNON: Homosexual practice is regarded by the writers of scripture as a particularly severe sexual offense that's on the order of, say, incest with one's parents.

HAGERTY: Chambers also believes that homosexual acts are a sin because the Bible calls for heterosexual marriage. But he says, even if you are in a gay relationship, you can still be a good Christian.

CHAMBERS: I believe that, once someone knows Christ, that they have an irrevocable relationship. That, if someone has a saving knowledge of Jesus Christ, that God's bigger than removing something at the first sign of trouble.

HAGERTY: Chambers is talking about salvation and here we get to the theological tinderbox. Gagnon and other conservative Christians say groups like Exodus are moderating core biblical beliefs and giving people false comfort about salvation.

GAGNON: The problem is you can't assure people that are engaged in serial unrepentant sin of an egregious sort that they're going to be in heaven.

HAGERTY: Yet, increasingly, science and the evangelical community, particularly young people, are taking a more open view of homosexuality, which bodes ill for ex-gay ministries and conversion therapy.

Barbara Bradley Hagerty, NPR News.

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